French Scientists Find New Anti-Cancer Substance in Red Wine

Acutissimin A is formed when wine comes into contact with oak barrels.
Dec 24, 2003

Those who delight in toasty, oaky wines can now rest assured that barrel aging lends more to wine than just flavor. Without oak, according to a team of French scientists, red wine would not contain a certain polyphenol that has been found to be a powerful tumor-fighting chemical.

This polyphenol, called acutissimin A, was recently discovered in red wine. It is formed when grape must and oak come into contact, as in winemaking, according to new research published in the Dec. 15 international edition of Angewandte Chemie, a chemistry journal.

In order for acutissimin to naturally occur, "you need a molecule coming from oak, but another one, catechin or epicatechin, coming from the grapes," said lead author Stéphane Quideau, a researcher at the Institut Européen de Chimie et Biologie in Pessac, France. The component found in oak is a form of tannin called vescalagin.

Quideau and his team hope that acutissimin A may one day be used as an anti-cancer drug. Acutissimin A was shown in previous research to be 250 times more powerful at stopping the growth of tumors than Etoposide, a drug commonly used in treating testicular and lung cancers. However, earlier attempts to synthesize acutissimin in labs produced samples too weak to be effective once ingested, with a concentration of only 3.7 percent of the polyphenol.

Quideau and his team experimented with different production methods until they created a solution that was 87 percent acutissimin A. But the researchers decided not to stop there. They knew that acutissimin A is formed from molecules found in grapes and oak, but were curious whether the substance occurred naturally in wine.

The Bordeaux-based team tested samples of a red wine (which had been oak-aged for 18 months) using UV detection and other methods. The scientists found acutissimin A, but were unsure if the amounts were large enough to help fight cancer. Further studies need to be done.

"It would be quite inappropriate to infer from the presence of acutissimin A in red wine that this beverage possesses anti-tumor properties," the scientists wrote.

Although the experiment searched only red wine for traces of the polyphenol, Quideau said acutissimin A may be found in other alcoholic beverages. "White wine contains much less catechin than red wine, but when [white wine is] aged in oak barrels, yes, you will probably form acutissimins, but in much smaller amounts than in red wine," he said.

"As far as ale and other liquors, sorry, no clue," he added. "In Bordeaux, we only drink Bordeaux wines."

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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

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