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Red-Wine Compound Shows Potential for Fighting Skin Cancer

U.S. researchers will feed resveratrol to mice to see if the polyphenol can kill melanoma.

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: May 1, 2003

A component of red wine already thought to have health benefits is now being investigated as a possible treatment for skin cancer. In a recent lab experiment at Marshall University in West Virginia, resveratrol was found to destroy human skin-cancer cells. Now the researchers plan further tests to see if the red-wine compound inhibits the growth of melanoma in mice.

Several previous studies have found that resveratrol -- a polyphenol found in grapes, red wine and peanuts -- may help fight some forms of cancer; it is currently being tested as a possible anti-cancer drug.

In the Marshall University experiment, published in the Feb. 20 issue of Cancer Letters, scientists from the department of biochemistry and molecular biology placed different amounts of resveratrol -- ranging from 5 to 100 micromolars (a measurement of a compound's concentration in a solution) -- in dishes with two different strains of melanoma cells. The resveratrol was left in contact with the cancer cells for up to 72 hours.

After only 24 hours, the resveratrol began to destroy both strains of the cancer. "The amount of resveratrol that was effective [in killing all the melanoma cells], 30 micromolars, is equivalent to that found in an 8-ounce glass of Cabernet," said lead researcher Richard Niles. Lower doses of the compound didn't kill all of the cells.

At higher doses, the cancer cells died more quickly. For example, one strain of melanoma in a solution of 100 micromolars of resveratrol was completely eradicated in 48 hours.

The exact chemistry behind this response is still being studied. "At the present time, we do not know how resveratrol is inducing apoptosis [cell death] in these human melanoma cells," said Niles.

For the next step in the research, mice injected with skin-cancer cells will be given a resveratrol solution to ingest -- rather than having the compound applied directly to the skin. This way, the scientists hope to answer a few fundamental questions on how resveratrol works once it is swallowed.

For example, said Niles, "How is resveratrol metabolized? How much resveratrol reaches the skin? How much reaches the tumor? The results of these studies will be important to determine if resveratrol might have any preventive and/or therapeutic value in human melanoma."

Only one previous study, published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2000, is known to have looked at the effects of resveratrol on melanoma. That study, which also used mice but examined several different flavonoids, found that while resveratrol "inhibited the growth of the mouse melanoma," it did not "decrease its metastatic or invasive potential."

In their Feb. 20 report, Niles and his colleagues wrote that one of the major reasons for their research is that melanoma "is increasing at an alarming rate." When skin cancer is diagnosed early, they added, the chance of survival is favorable, but if left unchecked, the cancer can spread to other organs, such as the eyes or lungs. "Later stages of the disease are difficult to treat and long-term survival is low," they added.

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For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind a Healthy Life With Wine and The Case for Red Wine

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