Red wine compound may kill pancreatic cancer cells

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A compound found in the skin of red grapes and red wine may help induce pancreatic cancer cells to malfunction and die, a lab study has found.

A wine selector tastes red wine in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, January 24, 2002. A compound found in the skin of red grapes and red wine may help induce pancreatic cancer cells to malfunction and die, a lab study has found. REUTERS/Dimitar Dilkoff

The compound, called resveratrol, is produced by certain plants as part of their defense arsenal against pathogens. A handful of foods, including raspberries, blueberries and peanuts, contain resveratrol, but it is most abundant in the skin of red grapes and, therefore, red wine.

In the new study, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York treated human pancreatic cancer cells with resveratrol, either alone or in combination with radiation.

They found that the wine compound disrupted the activity of the cancer cells’ mitochondria, energy-producing centers needed for cells to function. Resveratrol also impaired certain cancer-cell proteins that thwart chemotherapy by pumping drugs out of the cell.

In combination with radiation, but not alone, the compound bumped up the production of cell-damaging substances called reactive oxygen species -- potentially making the cancer cells more destructible.

And, in fact, cancer cells treated with the combination were more likely to self-destruct, the study found.

“While additional studies are needed, this research indicates that resveratrol has a promising future as part of the treatment for cancer,” lead investigator Dr. Paul Okunieff said in a university statement.

He and his colleagues report the findings in the journal Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.

What the results mean for cancer patients is not yet clear. Resveratrol is available in over-the-counter supplements, but there is no evidence that taking them aids cancer treatment. People undergoing cancer treatment should also not take any supplement without discussing it with their doctor first.

Okunieff noted, however, that drinking wine is not always off limits for cancer patients -- that is, doctors do not advise moderate drinkers who already drink wine to stop doing so while they are undergoing treatment.

Okunieff and his colleagues also point out that they used a relatively high dose of resveratrol, 50 micrograms per milliliter; the concentration found in red wine varies widely by type, but some wines have resveratrol levels as high as 30 micrograms per milliliter.

However, no one yet knows whether resveratrol from red wine would affect tumors in the body the same way it does cancer cells in a lab dish.

SOURCE: Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, March 2008.