The inhalation of smoke, especially from cigarettes, is a leading cause of lung cancer. But new research on lung cells in a lab shows a glass or two of red wine may help prevent the disease.
In 2009, the American Cancer Society recorded 219,440 new cases of lung cancer and 159,390 deaths from the disease, making it the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. A team of researchers from the University of California at Merced has focused their attention on resveratrol, to see if its properties as an antioxidant may prevent lung cancer development. Before tumors grow in lung tissue, there is inflammation partly due to the buildup of toxic free radicals. As an antioxidant, resveratrol acts as an anti-inflammatory, binding with and removing free radicals.
But what the researchers found caught them completely off guard. "Resveratrol did not chemically remove free radicals," during the experiment, said researcher Dr. Henry Forman, a professor at the Merced school of natural sciences. "Instead resveratrol protects caspases," which are enzymes that kill off precancerous cells in the process of keeping lung tissue healthy.
Forman said that every time a smoker takes a puff from a cigarette, millions of bronchial cells die as the lungs become inflamed. Toxic fumes from cigarettes can cause cellular explosions, leaking DNA and organelles into the lungs and prompting an immune system response. White blood cells flood the area.
"White blood cells do not discriminate [between healthy and unhealthy cells] and can also be damaging, killing everything in sight," Forman said. The body, however, has a set of chemicals that are meant to prevent this from happening. A family of enzymes called caspases can prevent the immune response by breaking down damaged cells, thereby minimizing the immune system’s response. The problem is, smoking also destroys caspases.
The Merced team found, in a study set for publication in the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, that resveratrol protects caspases, allowing the cells to limit the inflammation. The observation was unexpected, especially considering the results of a similar study they had published in the same journal in March 2009 theorizing resveratrol's beneficial effects were due to its antioxidant activity. "We expected resveratrol to protect lung cells, not help them die," said Forman.
For the study, the team tested the affect of the smoke on bronchial cells in the lab using a concentrated form of air pollution: one Camel cigarette. The cells were treated with doses of resveratrol, ranging from 2 micromolars to 20, except for a control group. After 24 hours, the cells treated with resveratrol at levels as low as 5 micromolars showed more than double the amount of smoke-exposed lung cell removal, through the activation of caspases. In the tissue untreated with resveratrol, the opposite was observed, with some cells dying violently and even some harmful cells replicating.
While this is a lab test, the results may translate to humans. But no one is suggesting that smoking is safe with a wine chaser. "Does this happen in people?" Forman asked. "Probably, but it's still better not to smoke. After all, it can only take one damaged cell to mutate and turn into a tumor."
And together, alcohol and smoking are often considered a dangerous combination. Last year, a Seattle study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that alcohol and smoking increased the risk of breast cancer recurrence among breast cancer survivors by as much as 90 percent.