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Health Watch: Wine Helps Breast Cancer Survivors

A big drug firm seems less interested in resveratrol-related research; grapes offer heart benefits

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: June 4, 2013

A new study provides good news for breast cancer survivors—there is no need to give up wine drinking in moderation. According to a study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, drinking before and after breast cancer diagnosis does not impact survival from the disease. In fact, a modest survival benefit was found in women who were moderate drinkers before and after diagnosis due to a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, a major cause of mortality among breast cancer survivors.

Previous research has linked alcohol consumption to an increased risk of developing breast cancer, though the nature of the link and exact risk of consumption patterns is unclear. For this study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, about 5,000 participants with breast cancer were questioned about alcohol consumption habits.

The researchers found that the amount and type of alcohol a woman reported consuming in the years before her diagnosis was not associated with her likelihood from dying from breast cancer. They also discovered that women who consumed three to six drinks per week in the years before their cancer diagnosis were 15 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than non-drinkers. Moderate wine drinkers showed an even lower risk, the study states.

"Our findings should be reassuring to women who have breast cancer," said Polly Newcomb, the study's lead author and head of the Cancer Prevention Program at the Fred Hutchinson Center. "Their past experience consuming alcohol is unlikely to impact their survival after diagnosis. This study also provides additional support for the beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption with respect to cardiovascular disease."

Newcomb added that women who drink responsibly may be more responsive to hormone-modifying therapies, but it is too early to know for sure.

Big Pharma Ditches Resveratrol

In April 2008, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced the purchase of a small medical research startup called Sirtris for $720 million. At the time, Moncef Slaoui, then chairman of Glaxo's research and development arm, said Sirtris had "potentially transformative science," in a statement on the sale. That potential appeared to hinge on research harnessing the health benefits of the red-wine chemical resveratrol.

Five years later, GSK is closing down Sirtris, quietly integrating the company into its research and development organization. Remaining staff is being moved from Cambridge, Mass., to a site in Pennsylvania. 

GSK and Sirtris were always careful to stress that resveratrol science was not their main focus. After all, you can't patent a chemical found in wine. Instead, the company hoped to produce more effective medicines based on the properties of resveratrol, focusing on treating diseases rather than creating an anti-aging pill.

"Sirtris hasn’t done any research with resveratrol for the last two years and has no plans to study resveratrol in the future," Melinda Stubbee, spokesperson for GSK global research and development, told Wine Spectator. "Our intention when we acquired Sirtris was never on developing a red wine pill. Our research is focused on treatments for diseases of aging and not on extending lifespan." Stubbee added that research at Sirtris exploring the biology of sirtuins—proteins that regulate aging—is highly successful and now requires the expertise available at the larger drug discovery sector in Pennsylvania. 

But after several setbacks during clinical trials of Sirtris medicines, is GSK as confident in the company's mission?

Grape Time to Relax

A recent study finds that grapes, full of polyphenols such as resveratrol, can improve the heart health of rats in as little as 18 weeks. For rodents, grape consumption helped reduce the occurrence of heart muscle enlargement and fibrosis, and smoothed the heartbeat. The result was fewer incidences of high blood pressure.

For the study, conducted at the University of Michigan Health System and published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, hypertensive, heart failure-prone rats were fed a grape-enriched diet for 18 weeks. The researchers found the rats eating grapes suffered much lower rates of heart failure. They concluded that grape polyphenols spur heart cells to produce glutathione, the most abundant cellular antioxidant in the heart, lowering levels of hypertension.

Lead researcher E. Mitchell Seymour said in a statement that the ability of grapes to influence several genetic pathways provides evidence that grapes work on multiple levels to deliver beneficial effects. But it's not all good news for wine drinkers—Seymour recommends eating whole grapes for the best health benefits.

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