Over the past few years, resveratrol, a natural compound found in the skin of red grapes and other berries, has garnered much attention from the scientific community and popular press. This compound is believed to be a potent antioxidant, and studies have touted resveratrol’s many benefits, ranging from improving heart health to preventing cancer to slowing brain aging, and even helping in weight loss. Derek Pratt, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Ottawa, is skeptical that resveratrol is an antioxidant per se, and instead believes that more complex compounds derived from resveratrol are responsible for its health benefits. To learn more, we spoke to the researcher and his team, who are collaborating with scientists from the University of Michigan. Together, they have found new ways to produce resveratrol-derived compounds in the lab, allowing them to better understand the compound’s effects, and potentially make new molecules with greater health benefits.
Q: Why did you decide to study resveratrol?
A: Resveratrol is widely considered to be a potent antioxidant that can trap free radicals, which are noxious molecules that can damage cells in the body. Free radicals are thought to be linked to cancer, heart disease and brain aging, among other conditions. We were skeptical that resveratrol extracted from plants could prevent disease by neutralizing free radicals. Resveratrol oxidizes easily, both inside the plant and after it is extracted, and this alteration produces a myriad of by-products. As a result, it is very difficult to figure out which of these compounds are biologically active, and what they are actually doing in the cell.
Q: What new findings has your study revealed?
A: This study demonstrates that resveratrol-derived natural products can be prepared in a lab, which cuts down the painstaking process of extracting, isolating and purifying them from plant tissue. We managed to prepare resveratrol-derived natural products by coupling two resveratrol-derived free radicals. Although these types of free radicals are generally not stable enough to be useful in preparing new molecules in the lab, we were able to slightly alter their structures to make it work. This allowed us to produce individual, resveratrol-derived natural products normally found as complex mixtures and also suggests that plants may employ the same “radical-coupling” strategy to make them.
Q: How can synthetic resveratrol be used in science or medicine?
A: Our findings will help advance research on the health effects of resveratrol and compounds derived from it, and this could extend to other natural products from medicinal plants. Some of these compounds can have potent effects on a variety of health issues, from cancer to cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. The ability to prepare the compounds in the lab rather than extracting them from the plant will help researchers better explore their medical properties and mechanisms of action, and identify the effects of individual molecules. Knowing which molecules do what in the cell could provide leads to help develop new molecules with greater health benefits.
Q: What do you plan on doing with your findings?
A: This work is part of an ongoing collaboration with Professor Corey Stephenson’s research group at the University of Michigan; we are building on earlier research findings to prepare the most complex resveratrol-derived compounds synthesized to date. We have been recently awarded a four-year operating grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to continue work on this project. Our next focus is to study how the various compounds we have prepared affect cell models of diseases and the mechanisms by which they act in the cell. We hope our work will lead to a better understanding of the medicinal properties of resveratrol and its derived products, and serve as a template for studying other plant-derived natural products with apparent antioxidant properties.
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