The results of an international study suggests that a compound found in red wine gave mice longer and healthier lives and also countered some of the effects of a high-calorie diet.
The compound resveratrol is found in grapes and other plants and in earlier studies appeared to have life-prolonging qualities.
It seems fish treated with resveratrol lived 60 per cent longer, and fruit flies and worms 30 per cent longer.
The researchers say that resveratrol appears to mimic the stimulation of the enzyme Sir2, or its equivalent in mammals, SIRT1, with the life-prolonging effects of a very low-calorie diet.
Such diets in some species increases their lifespan but it is unclear if this is the case in humans.
This in effect could mean that it might be possible to achieve the benefits of starving without actually needing to starve, simply by taking large amounts of resveratrol.
It is also suggested that the health benefit of red wine may also be because of the resveratrol present in the drink.
Professor David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School, who led the research, says as mice are much closer evolutionarily to humans than any other organism treated by this molecule, there is hope that similar impacts might be seen in humans without negative side-effects.
They believe their finding is a breakthrough with enormous possibilities for treating human beings particularly those who are obese.
For the study which investigated the effects of the molecule on mammals, the researchers used middle-aged mice fed on a high-calorie diet, with 60% of the calories coming from fat.
The mice suffered many of the problems of humans on an equivalent diet, including obesity, insulin resistance and heart disease.
The researchers found that the mice given resveratrol alongside their food did not lose weight but they showed decreased glucose levels, healthier hearts and liver tissue, and were more active and more nimble than the mice on the same diet but without the supplement.
The mice's health was found to be in line with that of mice fed on a standard diet, and the resveratrol reduced the risk of death in the mice by about 31%.
Resveratrol is available over the internet but the scientists caution against people supplementing their diet with the compound as they say at present the safety of resveratrol at the high doses in humans comparable with those used in the study is unknown, especially in the longterm.
But they say the potential exists for a true mimetic of dietary restriction which could be effective against many age-associated human diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A company, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, has been established to develop the product and has started trials in humans with type 2 diabetes of a resveratrol drug called SRT501.
The aim is to show that it can reduce the symptoms of the disease and its long-term effects.
The research is published in the journal Nature.