A potent compound found in red wine kills lung cancer cells and even protects against tumours, research suggests.
Resveratrol, abundant in grapes, reduced the number of cancerous cells in mice by almost half, a study found.
The compound even prevented the disease developing when given to rodents exposed to a cancer-causing chemical in cigarette smoke.
However, drinking large glasses of red wine will not give you any protection against cancer, the University of Geneva scientists said.
This is because resveratrol only reaches the lungs when it is inhaled via the nose – and the mice were given it nasally.
The Swiss researchers analysed mice who had been exposed to a cancer-causing chemical in cigarette smoke.
Some of the rodents developed lung cancer and were given resveratrol over 26 weeks. Others diseased animals received no treatment.
These were compared against mice who were also exposed to the chemical but were cancer-free, some of which were given resveratrol.
Results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, showed resveratrol reduced the number of cancerous cells in the disease-ridden mice by 45 per cent.
These animals also had fewer tumours and the tumours they did develop were smaller than their untreated counterparts.
Of the mice who were given resveratrol but did not have cancer at the start of the treatment, 37 per cent went on to develop the disease.
This is compared to 87.5 per cent of the animals who were untreated.
‘Resveratrol could therefore play a preventive role against lung cancer,’ study author Professor Muriel Cuendet said.
When taking orally as a tablet, resveratrol is broken down within minutes, before it has the chance to reach the lungs.
‘This is why our challenge was to find a formulation in which resveratrol could be solubilised in large quantities, even though it is poorly soluble in water, in order to allow nasal administration,’ lead author Aymeric Monteillier said.
‘This formulation, applicable to humans, allows the compound to reach the lungs.’
When inhaled via the nose, the concentration of resveratrol in the mice’s lungs was 22 times higher than when it was when swallowed.
The compound is thought to kill tumours by triggering cancer cell ‘suicide’ in a process known as apoptosis.
The scientists are planning to create a test that determines who may be eligible for preventative treatment with resveratrol.
Due to the compound already being used in food supplements, resveratrol is known to be safe.
It would therefore not require safety studies before it could be approved as a preventative lung-cancer treatment.
Professor Cuendet added, however: ‘This discovery is unfortunately of little economic interest to pharmaceutical groups.
‘The molecule is indeed simple and non-patentable and cancer prevention studies require a follow-up over many years.’
Resveratrol has previously been found to protect against cancers of the digestive tract, such as bowel, stomach and oesophagus.
Research released last June suggested resveratrol stops the formation of protein clumps that are found in 50 per cent of tumours.
The scientists, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, hope the finding will lead to the development of a drug that prevents such protein clusters.