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It takes more white wine than red to stop cancer

Both red wine and white wine inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells, but higher concentrations of white wine are required
Both red wine and white wine inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells, but higher concentrations of white wine are required
Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

From the journal Cancer Cell International comes an announcement sure to make headlines as well as to be misinterpreted: red wine appears to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells. The same is true of white wine, but the concentration required to have an anti-proliferative effect is higher for white wine than for red wine.

A team of Canadian researchers investigated the effects of both red wine and white wine on non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cells, specifically, human adenocarcinoma A549 and H1299 cells. The researchers note that 85 percent of lung cancers are NSCLC, and that only 20 percent of patients with NSCLC survive five years or more after diagnosis, despite treatment with radiation and chemotherapy. Hoping to find support for an alternative to cytotoxic therapies, the investigators designed the experiment in question to test the effects of wine on Akt, Erk, and p53.

Akt, also known as protein kinase B (PKB), is a kinase enzyme involved in apoptosis (programmed cell death) and proliferation of cells, among other functions. Erk (extra-cellular signal-regulated kinase) is another signaling molecule involved in cell functions such as mitosis and meiosis. The third pathway studied by the researchers involves p53, a protein involved in suppressing tumors.

The pro-cancer actions of these three substances in the body can be summed up as follows: When Akt is phosphorylated and activated, it activates other substances in the body that lead to cancer growth and survival. Erk is also known to be elevated in patients with growing cancers. The tumor suppressor p53 is damaged by radiation and chemotherapy, giving the undesirable result of inhibited p53 leading to greater cancer proliferation.

From prior studies, the scientists knew that beer and liquor are associated with a higher incidence of lung cancer, but red wine is associated with a lower incidence of lung cancer. In order to see whether whole wine (rather than just a component, like resveratrol) had any effect on the cancer-mediating pathways noted above, the research team exposed A549 and H1299 cells to several different types of wine. They observed that red wine had a significant effect on the ability of the A549 cells to proliferate -- indeed, even to survive -- that was greater than the effect of ethanol or resveratrol alone. They noted that red wine has an inhibitory effect on Akt and Erk, and that it increases the amount of p53 circulating in the body. White wine also inhibits Akt activation, lowering the survival rate of A549 cells.

When the scientists tried the same method with H1299 cells, the effects were similar. However, red wine achieved this anti-cancer effect at a concentration of two percent, compared with a concentration of five percent for white wine. Although the researchers remark that ethanol alone or resveratrol alone does not explain this anti-cancer power of wine, they remark that further research is needed to detect whether the combination of multiple polyphenols (such as quercetin, epicatechin, and resveratrol) is the magical combination that affects the aforementioned pathways in a desirable manner.

What are the practical implications of this study? Clearly, the results provide direction for future studies on anti-cancer treatments other than radiation and current cytotoxic chemotherapies. Does this study support adults of legal drinking age having a glass of wine? The researchers note that although the levels are extremely low, wine does contain ethyl carbamate, which can have mutagenic effects on the GI tract. In other words, read the research footnoted in the original research paper and make your own decision. It's unlikely to be as back-and-forth as the research into the health effects of coffee, but the jury will be out on the health effects of wine for quite some time to come.

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