Two separate teams of researchers, one on each side of the Atlantic, believe that the red wine compound resveratrol may have the ability to treat cells associated with diseases. Scientists at the University of Rochester in New York found that the compound deactivates the mitochondria of pancreatic cancer cells, making chemotherapy more effective, while a team at Newcastle University in England is studying resveratrol as a treatment for a mitochondrial-related illness.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant compound found in many sources, such as nuts, berries and the skins and seeds of grapes, where it acts as a defender against foreign invaders like mold and fungus. The compound is also found in wine, especially red wine, due to the exposure of the fermenting juice to skins. Previous studies have shown that resveratrol bolsters healthy cells by stimulating mitochondria, the organelle that provides power for a cell's operations.
For the Rochester study, published in the March issue of Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, the research team wanted to examine if resveratrol had a negative effect on cancer cells. In this case, they chose pancreatic cancer cells. Pancreatic cancer is particularly hard to treat with chemotherapy, because the pancreas, a gland located deep in the abdomen, pumps powerful digestive enzymes into the intestines. The pancreatic cells protect themselves from these enzymes by rapidly pumping out toxic materials, including chemotherapy, making treatment difficult.
The team, lead by Dr. Paul Okunieff, the chief of radiation oncology at the University's cancer center, prepared two sets of pancreatic cancer cells and added pure resveratrol to one. After treating both sets with chemotherapy, they found that the resveratrol had "depolarized" the cell membranes of 35 percent of the mitochondria, shutting down the organelles and exposing the cells to radiation treatment. In the sample without resveratrol, the mitochondria were not greatly damaged. Moreover, the resveratrol reduced the function of proteins in the cells that pump the chemo out. The scientists speculate that the red wine compound may be more effective at higher doses.
"While additional studies are needed, the research indicates that resveratrol has a promising future as part of the treatment for cancer," said Okunieff. The study added that chemotherapy patients, who are normally advised not to consume alcohol, should not be automatically advised against drinking red wine. However, whether or not the lab results translate to the beverage remain unclear.
"The challenge lies in finding the right concentration [of resveratrol] and how it works in the cell. In this case, we've discovered an important part of that equation," Okunieff added. "Antioxidant research is very active and very seductive right now."
Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has designated a lab-produced form of resveratrol, made by Sirtris Pharmaceuticals in Massachusetts, an "orphan-drug," a preliminary status granted to drugs being developed as possible treatment for a disease affecting fewer than 200,000 Americans.
Sirtris is supplying their resveratrol, called SRT501, to a team of scientists at England's Newcastle University to conduct clinical trials on ailments related to a mitochondrial-related illness, called MELAS—mitochondrial myopathy, encephalopathy, lactic acidosis, strokelike episodes. MELAS is caused by mutated mitochondria and is a progressive and fatal disease that normally surfaces when the patient is between five and 15 years old. Strokelike episodes may lead to impaired muscular function and dementia.
The disease may not affect as many people as heart disease and cancer, but "MELAS can have a devastating effect on the quality of life of patients and their families," said Patrick Chinnery, who will head the upcoming resveratrol-based MELAS trial.
Chinnery's team will study if resveratrol can improve the functioning of the mitochondria and hopefully diminish the symptoms. If the research is successful, the FDA will then consider approving SRT501, with Sirtris as the sole marketer, for a seven-year period. "Many diseases of aging, such as type 2 diabetes, exhibit impaired mitochondrial function," said Peter Elliot, vice president of development at Sirtris. "We hope to develop new therapies."
Resveratrol seems so promising that British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced on April 23 that it would buy Sirtris for $720 million. Moncef Slaoui, chairman of Glaxo's research and development arm, said Sirtris had "potentially transformative science," in a statement on the sale.