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Wine Chemicals Show Cancer-Fighting Potential

Two studies find polyphenols kill cancer cells in the lab; impact in the body remains unproven

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: April 24, 2009

While scientists continue to explore the relationship between alcohol and breast cancer, and what role consumption patterns may play, two recent scientific studies offer a brighter picture for red wine drinkers, though the authors are cautious about making specific recommendations on safe wine consumption. Both find that polyphenolic chemicals in wine appear to fight cancer cells in the lab. But questions remain on what impact they might have in the body.

The first study comes from the University of Puerto Rico and was published in the March issue of Clinical & Experimental Metastasis. The research notes that red wine's potential for preventing cancer is attributed to the beverage's high polyphenol content. These plant-based antioxidants are found abundantly in the skins and seeds of grapes and leech into the wine during fermentation, giving red wine potentially greater health benefits.

When the scientists exposed human breast cancer cells in the lab to a combination of three polyphenols commonly found in red wine—resveratrol, quercetin and cathechin—they found that the rate of cell death was 40 percent to 55 percent greater than when the cells were left alone. After 77 days, breast cancer tumors treated with the polyphenols were 30 percent to 50 percent smaller than the control tumors.

Furthermore, the polyphenol cocktail appeared to reduce metastasis in bone, kidney and liver cancer lines by an average of roughly 60 percent. Lung and lymphatic cancer lines were unaffected by the treatment. The results echo the university's earlier research, published in the March 2008 issue of Translational Oncology, that such a combination may help inhibit the progression of breast cancer in mice.

Surangani Dharmawardhane Flanagan, chief of the cell biology section at the university's school of medicine, worked on both of the studies. "We gave the red wine compounds to the mice in 10 percent ethanol, which is close to the amount of alcohol in wine," Flanagan said. "It shows that wine should protect against bone and liver metastases."

Flanagan hesitated to formally recommend drinking wine because of the dangers of alcohol, but noted that she would be "comfortable with a qualified statement saying that red wine can protect against breast cancer metastasis," since "the antioxidants in red wine can also reduce the oxidant effects of alcohol that can cause cancer, and therefore drinking wine may be more protective than drinking other types of alcohol."

A recent study in Sweden did not look directly at breast cancer, but did look at ways of stopping the spread of cancers. Conducted at the Karolinska Institute's department of neuroscience and slated to appear in the journal Experimental Cell Research, the study found that the red wine antioxidant resveratrol can kill cancer cells in a previously unobserved manner.

Researcher Ola Hermanson, who works in the institute's department of developmental biology for regenerative medicine, gave Wine Spectator a sneak peek at the findings. "When we apply very small amounts, a few microliters, of red wine directly on drug-resistant cancer cells in a petri dish, the cells die basically immediately. This death is associated with increased oxygen levels, alas, the opposite of what we expected."

"It turns out that there is something in the red pigment of the wine that inhibits a specific enzyme, thioredoxin reductase (TrxR), in the cancer cells," said Hermanson. "TrxR is a major guardian of proper oxygen levels in the cells. When inhibited, the oxidative stress and the so-called 'oxygen species' increase and the cells die."

This inhibition of TrxR correlates perfectly with the intensity of the red wine's color. Shiraz and Syrah had very strong effects, while brighter wines had less effect and white wine had no effect on the cancer cells.

But the effects may not be the same inside the body since the wine must be metabolized and passed though the liver first. "We do not know at this stage how it would affect the anti-cancer properties of the red wine," said Hermonson. "Further, even if the amounts of wine given to the cells are very small, it still corresponds to very large amounts if consumed—roughly several bottles at a very quick pace."

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