Friday, January 30, 2009

resveratrol and breast cancer

Researchers have been wrestling with the question of the relationship between drinking and breast cancer for years, and the issue remains far from settled. It is a huge topic and so I plan to post on it from time to time, but today I am interested in the role of resveratrol and cancer. Several recent studies have identified unique ways that resveratrol might be important in both prevention and treatment of breast and other types of cancer. One study in particular, from the University of Nebraska this past summer, helped shed some light on the subject.

It is known that estrogen increases the risk of breast cancer, which is one of the reasons why post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is so problematic. What makes it more complicated still is that it isn't the estrogen itself, but one of the compounds formed when it is metabolized (broken down) that is responsible for initiating the cancerous changes in breast cells. Estrogen is metabolized by certain enzymes, of which there are two types; one converts estrogen into harmful carcinogens, while the other pathway leads to harmless compounds. These researchers found that resveratrol actually interacts with the cells' DNA to direct the processing of estrogen down the right path by producing the "good" enzymes. Of course this oversimplifies it a bit, but the importance of the study is explaining this capability of resveratrol to actually direct the function of cells by interacting with the "operating system" to keep them on the straight and narrow. There are at least a dozen other anti-cancer properties of resveratrol, and several clinical trials are underway.
So while the question of healthy drinking andbreast cancer remains a source of consternation for many, I would suggest that red wine should at least be the beverage of choice for women who are concerned about breast cancer risk.

Monday, January 26, 2009

60 Minutes and Resveratrol

We have to give credit to CBS TV's "60 Minutes" for breaking open the wine and health story 17 years ago with their segment on the French paradox. On January 25 2009 (last night as I write this) they aired a long overdue update on resveratrol, the polyphenol extract from red wine to which so many of the health properties are attributed. Of course, I covered all this in some detail in the first edition of Age Gets Better with Wine, and in the second edition which will be coming out this year there is a chapter devoted to resveratrol. But my readers will also appreciate that the resveratrol story is a bit more nuanced than you might assume from a short television segment. True, it seems to improve exercise tolerance, improve cholesterol levels, prevent and treat diabetes and cancer, prevent the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's, and trigger the genes that extend lifespan, at least in mice. But what of the effects in humans? Largely unknown. Let me repeat that: the effects of resveratrol supplementation in humans are still largely unknown. The biotech company Sirtris, which was acquired by GlaxoSmith Kline last year for more than $700 million, is developing synthetic molecules based on resveratrol, but hundreds of times more potent.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

the days of wine and chocolate

It's no secret that dark chocolate is good for you. What many people don't realize is that the healthy compounds are the same things (polyphenols) that are in red wine. That is why they naturally complement each other. But many of these molecules have a somewhat bitter flavor, so cocoa processing actually removes them, especially for milk chocolate products. And going dark isn't necessarily the answer, it has to be chocolate specially processed to preserve the good parts without sacrificing taste. Check out Theo Chocolates from Seattle. And if you really care about your valentine, get the good stuff!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Is resveratrol the answer?

It is hard to aviod hearing the hype about resveratrol, the polyphenol from wine to which so many of its healthful properties attribute. The body of research is indeed truly impressive: anti-cancer, anti-diabetes, a whole range of anti-aging activities have been identified in laboratory studies. One company, Sirtris, derived compounds from reseveratrol that had such interesting capabilities that they were acquired by GlaxoSmith Kline in 2008 for more than $700 million. Resveratrol supplements are available widely over the internet and most grocery stores, and now we hear about a genetically engineered beer with resveratrol!
There are two problems with the assumption that resveratrol is the key to wine's health benefits. First, there are a number of other compounds in wine, such as quercetin, that also have interesting data to support theri potential importance, and it may be that it is the interactions of all of the various things in wine that really makes it work. Secondly and most important though is that to date there are no published studies of resveratrol supplementation in human subjects! From a strictly scientific point of view, the effects are unkown. It is all still extrapolation from mice and cell cultures in petri dishes, at least so far. What we do know is that wine drinkers (not grape juice drinkers) are healthier and live longer, and resveratrol may be only a small part of the story.