Can a Compound in Red Wine Help Fight Cancer? How Supplements Can Be Promising Disease-Fighters

04/23/2015 04:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

In the war against cancer, we've taken many steps forward, thanks to science and treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. But the disease has also found a way to fight back. Some tumors can develop a resistance against chemotherapy, which is why certain scientists are focusing their efforts on creating more chemosensitization drugs. Think of these medications as a chemotherapy assistant: They help to make chemotherapy drugs work more effectively by counteracting the tumor's resistance on a cellular level.

Resveratrol as a Cancer-Fighting Aid

An exciting field in cancer medicine is the study of substances found in foods and plants. A growing body of research suggests that these natural compounds may have properties that can play an important role in the development of these chemosensitization drugs (1). Case in point: In 2011, a study conducted by Subash D. Gupta, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences revealed that resveratrol -- a compound found in red grapes, wine, peanuts, plums, and other plants -- can sensitize tumor cells to chemotherapy. (1)

In the study, resveratrol was found to act on cell-signaling molecules in the tumor's resistance process to make the cancer more sensitive to chemotherapy drugs. (1) Resveratrol was shown to overcome this resistance in a number of different ways: It influenced how the cancer cells grew, communicated with each other, destroyed themselves, and infiltrated healthy cells, among other mechanisms. (1) In the lab, the researchers tested resveratrol on a long list of different types of cancers, including lung, leukemia, myeloma, prostate, oral, and pancreatic cancers. They showed that resveratrol helped make each type of these cells more receptive to chemotherapy. (1)

Although more research on the topic is warranted, these results suggest that the use of resveratrol as a chemosensitizer may be promising. As the study authors write:

Cancer cells are intelligent; they do whatever it takes to survive. The fact that tumor cells develop multiple chemoresistance mechanisms and more than one mechanism may work simultaneously complicates the success of chemotherapy. In this regard, resveratrol seems to be an ideal candidate as an adjunct to chemoresistance. (1)

The hope is that, in the future, cancer patients may be able to take a resveratrol-derived drug to help their bodies become more sensitive to chemotherapy -- and help those drugs destroy those cancer cells once and for all.

Resveratrol's Anti-Cancer Effects

Besides acting as a chemosensitizer, other preliminary research has suggested that resveratrol itself may fight against precancerous and cancerous cells. This makes scientific sense, since resveratrol is a natural antibiotic; plants produce it in response to natural stressors. (2) A natural antioxidant, resveratrol has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties. Over the past decade, scientists have extensively studied whether these same benefits in plants can be applied to humans. (2) This poses the question: If resveratrol can help damaged cells in plants from replicating, can the same be done for cancerous cells?

In vitro studies suggest that the answer may be yes. (2) According to a review done by Anupam Bishayee, Ph.D., who was a the time at the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy, and published in the Journal Cancer Prevention Research, resveratrol possesses a number of properties that may halt or deter the growth of cancerous cells. (2)

These laboratory studies reveal that it may help fight cancer by suppressing the growth of cells, as well as hinder cancer's ability to latch on and invade healthy cells. (2) In one study, resveratrol added to neuroblastoma cancer cells -- a common type of childhood cancer that develops in the nerve cells -- in a test tube showed suppression in the rate of growth, as well as an increase in apoptosis, or sudden death. (2) Other research done on rats found that those treated with resveratrol had slower glioma growth rates, which meant that there was less blood flow to the cancer. (2) Meanwhile, scientists also showed that mice given resveratrol before and after exposure to harmful UVB rays had lower rates of skin tumors -- and, for those who did develop them, their tumor growth was slower. (2)

At the end of his review of the research done on resveratrol and cancer, Bishayee concluded that much more research on resveratrol is necessary, but "resveratrol is a promising candidate in chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic strategies and a potential weapon in the effort to alleviate the burden of human cancer. (2)

The Future of Natural Compounds in the Cancer Fight

All of these scientific studies add more fuel to the fire that natural substances shouldn't be written off as potential tools and agents in cancer-fighting drugs. After all, a long list of cancer drugs have been developed or derived from plant compounds (1,3). In fact, it's estimated that more than 60 percent of anticancer drugs available on the market come from some type of natural origin. (1)

Natural substances use a variety of different pathways to combat and kill cancer cells, as well as slow the growth of tumors and enhance the action of other cancer-fighting drugs. (1, 2) And they can also serve as useful templates of sorts to help scientists identify key pathways and mechanisms to help fight the disease -- a key stepping stone in cancer medicine development. (3) Some of the most popular types of cancer medicines, including paclitaxel (Taxol), vincristine (Oncovin) and camptothecin, are derived from a natural substance in some form. (3)

What we know is this: With cancer being the second leading cause of death is worldwide, it's crucial that we have the very best arsenal of weapons against this deadly and devastating disease. Natural plant-derived substances, including resveratrol, are proving to be one of our greatest assets in the fight but more research is required to help us fully understand its overall health impact.

Yet we've just barely scratched the surface of what's out there: Only 5 to 15 percent of the estimated 250,000 higher plants have been studied for bioactive compounds. (3) This is all the more evidence that we should continue investing our scientific time and resources in researching plants and their exciting potential cancer-fighting properties.


1. Gubash, Supta A., "Chemosensitization of tumors by resveratrol," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1215, pp. 150-160, January 2011

2. Bishayee, A., "Cancer prevention and treatment with resveratrol: from rodent studies to clinical trials," Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2009 May;2(5):409-18. doi: 10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-08-0160. Epub 2009 Apr 28.

3. Amin, A. "Overview of major classes of plant-derived anticancer drugs," Int J Biomed Sci. 2009 Mar;5(1):1-11.