The discovery has important implications for increasing the effectiveness of current therapies for atherosclerosis, heart disease, arthritis, and autoimmune disorders as well as forming a basis of treatment for cancer.
The compound, a protein called reveratrol, helps to starve cancer cells by inhibiting the action of a key protein that feeds them. The protein, called nuclear factor- kappa B (NF-kB), is found in the nucleus of all cells and activates genes responsible for cell survival.
Marty Mayo, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia, said: "We used physiologically-relevant doses of resveratrol and found dramatic effects on human cancer cells."
Mayo addded that the total amount of reveratrol in one glass of wine three of four times a week is the right amount to block the protein from feeding cancer cells. However Mayo warned that drinking more than that would stop this effect and may actually lead to a greater risk of cancer.
The findings, which are published on the online edition of the Journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) demonstrated that cancer cells treated with resveratrol died because they became sensitive to a compound called Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFa). The researchers found that resveratrol initiated a reaction in the NF-kB molecule that caused the cancer cells essentially to self-destruct in a process called apoptosis.
There have been numerous clinical trials investigating the health benefits of red wine and in particular resveratrol in which its anti-cancer properties have been well-documented.
"Current studies are using compounds similar to TNFa in conjunction with resveratrol to kill cancer cells," Mayo said.
"Clinical trials using this approach in patients are showing encouraging results. This research may explain why this combined therapy is effective and why researchers are always looking for ways to improve cancer therapy," he added.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in a number of plants, including grape skins, raspberries, mulberries and peanuts. Its job in nature is to fight fungus during the rainy season, and it is especially prevalent in grapes used in making red wine. Resveratrol is also sold over-the-counter in the US as a nutritional supplement.
A recent study published in Drugs Exp Clin Res 2003;29(5-6):263-9 demonstrated that resveratrol exerts antiproliferative/proapoptotic effects on prostate cancer. The researchers also mentioned the antiproliferative and proapoptotic effect of resveratrol in breast cancer cells.