Numerous medical studies have produced evidence that wine may help prevent cancer, but now, some scientists are presenting a new theory on the science behind its cancer-fighting properties. Their research may help develop new therapies.
The evidence that wine can help fight some cancers has been growing for several years. (At the same time, some studies have shown alcohol, especially in excess, increases the risk of some cancers.) But researchers have struggled to understand why. Many theories speculated that antioxidants in wines, including compounds like resveratrol, have something to do with it. Antioxidants may reduce the stress of chemical processes in the body. But scientists have struggled to find evidence that the compounds in wine play such a role.
William Li, president and medical director at the Angiogenesis Foundation, disagrees with the antioxidant theory. In his recent presentation at the TED Conference, an innovation summit, he argued that research shows that some compounds in wine—including resveratrol—function as angiogenic inhibitors, and those are the real cancer fighters.
Angiogenic inhibitors are substances that prevent the growth of new blood vessels. Because growing tumors need new blood vessels in order to survive and spread, angiogenic inhibitors can suppress tumor growth. (Blood vessels are not usually built elsewhere in an adult body unless tissue repair is actively in process.)
Antiangiogenics have proven so effective at fighting cancer that they make up many of the cancer medications already on the market. Identifying angiogenics inhibitors as the main source of wine's health effects widens the range of wines that contribute to cancer reduction. What's more, scientists are currently looking at antiangiogenic inhibitors as a treatment for chronic obesity, because they can suppress blood vessel growth in fatty tissue.
"There are very few studies that show an antioxidant approach in diet creates better health," said Li. "An angiogenesis approach has already been embraced by the medical community as improving disease outcomes, including cancer."
In his research, Li discovered that compounds like resveratrol prevented the development of cancer-feeding blood vessels by as much as 60 percent. And since unhealthy fat growth requires the same kind of blood vessel development as tumors, a diet rich in antiangiogenic compounds fights flab just as effectively as it fights cancer.
Other experiments Li performed on teas showed that foods previously identified as high in antioxidants were not necessarily high in antiangiogenics. While the antioxidant approach identified red wine as the healthier drink, Li believes that an antiangiogenic approach could discover similar health benefits in white wine as well.
"The anti-cancer power of many foods is mistakenly attributed to antioxidants," said Richard Beliveau, director of molecular medicine at the University of Quebec and author of Food to Fight Cancer. "Antiangeogentic activity is much more important than antioxidant activity in preventing cancer."
The argument continues to divide researchers, however. While Jack Losso, professor of food science at Louisiana State University, doesn't dispute Beliveau's assertion, he does not advocate fully ignoring antioxidants in favor of antiangiogenics.
"Cancer is like a basketball team—you can't beat it with one player," said Losso. "I say resveratrol is like Michael Jordan. In Chicago, he had a good coach and good teammates, and they had a parade every year. He goes to Washington, and they never win. You need antioxidants and antiangiogenics."
Li said he plans to continue to investigate the antiangiogenic properties of wine. Over the next two years, Li hopes to assemble a comparative grape and wine registry that identifies all of the antiangiogenic compounds in wine, their potencies, and their relative abundance in different types of wines and grapes. "By examining the potential of antiangeogenics in food, we will find answers to cancer all around us," he said. "In our groceries, in our food, and in our glasses."