This story was first published on Jan. 25, 2009. It was updated on May 21, 2009.
Eighteen years ago, 60 Minutes first examined the so-called French paradox, which suggested that the French - despite a high fat diet and high consumption of wine - had a remarkably low incidence of heart disease compared with Americans. Most researchers agreed that there was something in the wine that offered protection, and a few years later, even the highly cautious federal dietary guidelines say that moderate consumption of red wine can be beneficial.
As 60 Minutes reported in January, scientists across the country have identified a substance in red wine called resveratrol that they believe might do more than just protect the heart, but could in very high concentrations significantly extend life by preventing a number of age related illnesses.
If they're right, we all may soon be taking a pill that could give us an extra decade or two of healthy old age.
"If the promise holds true, I think this has the chance to change healthcare," Dr. Christoph Westphal tells correspondent Morley Safer.
Dr. Westphal says we all may soon be taking a drug that just might beat the clock, a simple pill that could delay the inevitable. "Our goal is to prevent and forestall many of the diseases that strike us as we reach 50, 60, and 70. All with one pill."
Asked if he's suggesting that it's some kind of a rejuvenation drug that would turn a 70-year-old into a 35-year-old, Westphal tells Safer, "That might be pretty hard to do. But I think if we're on a train heading one direction, we can slow down that train. I think we can slow down these genes that control the aging process."
That quest to put death on hold began in 2003 when Westphal met David Sinclair, a biochemist at Harvard who was studying the genetic components of aging. "Five years ago I met David. And he had shown that you could extend life span in yeast. That's pretty exciting," Westphal recalls.
Yeasts are one thing, human beings are more complicated. So Sinclair focused on a gene present in almost all life forms: the sirtuin gene. It's normally inactive, but when it is active, Sinclair believes it triggers a survival mechanism that extends life.
Convinced that something in nature could activate that gene, Sinclair randomly tested thousands of compounds and got a hit: resveratrol.
"When I Googled this resveratrol, I was shocked to find that red wine was the top hit," Sinclair remembers.
Red wine is brimming with resveratrol. It is found in high concentrations in the skin of the grape, and seems to play a role in protecting it from invading bacteria and fungi.
Sinclair says he was aware of research into red wine and certain health benefits. "I mean, that's why I almost fell off my chair when the link was made. And I thought that this was a potential explanation for the benefits of red wine."
Convinced they were on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough, Sinclair and Westphal launched Sirtris, a Cambridge, Mass. research company. They, along with a handful of other cutting-edge biotech companies, are developing resveratrol-based drugs that they believe zero-in on the longevity gene.
"The important news here is not that we'd found something in red wine. The important thing is that we passed a milestone where we can now make drugs based on this knowledge and we can potentially slow down aging itself," Sinclair explains.
Everyone from plastic surgeons to your friendly snake oil salesman have been promising a ticket to eternal youth for some time, so the prospect of a prescription pill based on red wine that could trigger a longevity gene sounds too good to be true. And yet scientists have actually known for years of one surefire of doing that: stay hungry.
"Eating a lot of food turns that off. Dieting, extreme dieting turns it on," Sinclair says.
In one experiment, a group of rhesus monkeys is on a major diet. For nearly two decades they have been taking in a good 30 percent fewer calories than their well-fed brothers and sisters.
They are the centerpiece of a National Institutes of Health study at the University of Wisconsin on whether or not CR- calorie restriction - makes them healthier and extends their lives. To maintain their sterile environment, the 60 Minutes team had to suit up to visit them with Ricki Colman, the "project leader."
The control animals are nearing the end of a typical monkey lifespan, about 27 years, and major differences in their overall health are becoming clear. The skinny monkeys actually look younger, their coats are shinier, and fewer have arthritis.
And the chunky monkeys? Many have diabetes, and a significantly higher number have cancer and heart disease.
Pound for pound, Colman says the lighter monkeys do better.