Article Published in Chemical & Engineering News, March 2017
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A healthy diet and regular exercise have long been known to delay or ward off diseases that are more prevalent in old age, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even cognitive decline. But scientists and consumers have also sought another, less strenuous, way: a pill.
Or even better, a glass of wine. In the early 1990s, research suggested that substances in red wine might explain the so-called French paradox, the observation that wine-loving French people have a low incidence of heart problems while also eating foods rich in saturated fat, such as butter and cheese.
While the world cheered the health-boosting potential of red wine, researchers dug deeper into the components of wine in hopes of discovering its chemical secrets. Among wine’s cache of polyphenols, they discovered the bioactive molecule resveratrol.
Studies, mostly in cell cultures and in animals, showed resveratrol protects against inflammation, oxidative stress, and cancer. The compound even seemingly extended the life span of worms, although the same observation didn’t hold up for mice.
The results were enough to spur demand for resveratrol supplements. Red wine contains only 7 mg/L of the compound, whereas studies showed that positive effects in cells and animals appeared at a level equivalent to 300 mg/L. So suppliers in the supplement industry, many based in China, patented dozens of techniques for producing large quantities of the molecule.
In recent years, a lack of progress in testing resveratrol’s impact on human health has slowed growth in demand for the compound. But that trend may be about to turn around: A new batch of research is now exploring resveratrol’s effects on major age-related diseases in humans, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Results from some early Phase II studies suggest resveratrol influences certain molecules in the body that are indicators, or biomarkers, of disease.
Manufacturers say the prospect of positive outcomes from clinical trials has revived interest in new and improved routes to the chemical.
The Swiss biotech firm Evolva has long been planning for resveratrol’s next moment in the sun. In 2012, it acquired a yeast fermentation process for making resveratrol from sugar from Denmark’s Fluxome Science. That year, the market for resveratrol was estimated to be worth about $50 million annually.
“At the time, Fluxome was selling some, but not a lot, of resveratrol,” says Angela Tsetsis, head of Evolva’s resveratrol program. “Evolva took on the technology and really improved upon it to make it more cost-effective.”
In the years since, however, the buzz around resveratrol—and demand for it—has waned. “Like many of these compounds that ebb and flow, resveratrol has been ebbing lately and has been slowing down in the past five or six years,” Tsetsis observes.
So in addition to improving its fermentation route, Evolva has been working to support and highlight new clinical trials looking at how resveratrol might affect blood glucose, metabolic syndrome, and bone health. And last month it gave its resveratrol a brand name, Veri-te, and launched a marketing campaign around it aimed at supplement makers.
Evolva is working to differentiate its product from the many other sources on the market. For instance, other companies extract resveratrol not from wine or grapes, but from the root of a fast-growing shrub called the Japanese knotweed. But plant extraction presents challenges that Evolva doesn’t have to worry about, Tsetsis explains.