Anti-oxidant foods have gained considerable attention these days for their cancer-fighting properties. Highly reactive free radicals accumulate in the body over time and do tremendous damage to the cells and tissues. Some of these free radicals are natural byproducts of metabolic activities, but external factors like exposure to harmful chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides, tobacco smoke, radiation, etc., can cause an overload.
Free radicals are highly unstable, and attack surrounding molecules, setting off a chain reaction that can meddle with structure and function of cells. It can also cause mutations in the DNA and trigger cancer growth. Antioxidants are molecules that react with these free radicals to form stable molecules, literally wiping them up, hence they are called scavengers. Vitamins E and C are well-known antioxidants. So are many phytochemicals like carotene and lycopene found in fruits and vegetables.
Why focus on grapes?
Researchers are busy testing all kinds of plants for phytochemicals that may offer a cure for various age-related diseases and cancers. They have found that pigments that impart red, yellow and green colors to fruits and vegetables are especially potent antioxidants. Plant products that are already in use for culinary and medical purposes get extra attention as their comparative safety can be taken for granted.
Grapes have been part of our food system for a long time. The fruit is consumed fresh, dried into raisins, or fermented into wine. The medicinal properties of not only the fruit, but the leaves, as well as the stem, have been explored even in ancient cultures. The juice of the vine and its leaves has been used to treat skin diseases and inflammations. Raisins soaked in water overnight, a well-known remedy for constipation, can be given even to infants.
The resveratrol in red wine has been in the news for all the right reasons. It is considered to be behind the health and longevity of the French, a phenomenon known as the French Paradox. According to Professor Karen Brown of the Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine at the University of Leicester, “resveratrol can do a whole host of beneficial things – from protecting against a variety of cancers and heart disease, to extending lifespan.” Quercetin is another antioxidant in red wine with proven medical benefits.
What is grape seed extract?
Grape seed extract (GSE) is derived from the seeds of grapes obtained from the wine industry. The grape seeds are first pressed to make grape seed oil which has culinary as well as therapeutic uses in traditional medicine. The remaining dry mass, containing both the seeds and skin of grapes, is powdered to make the extract.
Grape seed extract is rich in oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs) which help in the production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant with DNA-protective activity. The extract has been known to improve immunity and blood circulation, even though the resveratrol content is comparatively lower than that in red wine.
Therapeutic uses of grape seed extract
Grape seed extract has been used to treat inflammation of the blood vessels; hence it is widely used for treating high blood pressure and heart disease. Its antioxidant properties make it useful as a detoxifying agent. It affords protection from premature aging due to sun exposure and radiation damage. It can reduce dementia.
Grape seed extract and cancer
GSE has been found to reduce tumor size and slow down the progression of cancers of the stomach, breast, lungs, colon and prostate. Research on grape seed extract at the University of Kentucky has shown that it could destroy more than ¾ of the leukemia cells exposed to it. Activation of a regulatory protein called JNK is thought to be responsible for this. Several studies have been conducted on the effect of GSE on colorectal cancer with significant success.
How GSE works on colorectal cancer
We have heard that cancer is caused by abnormal proliferation of cells. Rapidly dividing cells create abnormal tissue masses, depleting the nutritional reserves in the body. But that is a very simplistic explanation for the complex process of cancer development.
Cells in the body are programmed to follow a definite cell cycle. At the end of their natural cycle, they are programmed to self-destruct, too. This programmed cell death is called apoptosis. At a cellular level, defective apoptosis is a major contributing factor to the origin of cancer, as well as its progression.
Cells which undergo apoptosis signal to the phagocytic white blood cells which immediately engulf the resulting debris. On the other hand, necrosis or quick death of the cell by chemical or physical injury causes inflammation and damage to the surrounding tissues. That is why forced cell death by anti-cancer therapies often has adverse effects.
Destroying the cancer cells with chemotherapy and radiation does not always stop the progression of the disease and prevent its spread to other tissues. Certain cancers like the colorectal cancer are especially resistant to anti-cancer therapies that kill off the cells in the affected area. Faulty apoptosis may be the culprit in such cases. As the disease progresses, the effect of chemotherapy seem to decrease. GSE modulates the apoptosis through different pathways and help arrest the progression and spread of the cancer.
Grape seed extract succeeds where chemotherapy fails
Grape seed extract has shown great promise in the treatment of colorectal cancer, as it aids apoptosis through various cellular mechanisms. It is interesting to note that, the more advanced the cancer is, the better the action of grape fruit extract. The active ingredients in the extract are capable of targeting colorectal cancer cells selectively, too, unlike the toxic chemicals in chemotherapy that affect both healthy and diseased cells.
Identifying the active cancer-fighting agent in grape seed extract
Researchers at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Cancer Center have been working on grape seed extract for over 10 years. They have finally identified the compound named B2G2 to be responsible for the anti-colorectal cancer properties of GSE. Not only that, but they managed to artificially synthesize the compound for further studies.
According to Alpna Tyagi from the Skaggs School, “Isolating and synthesizing B2G2 is an important step because now we have the ability to conduct more experiments with the pure compound.” More research and documentation is necessary to get GSE and its derivatives approved by FDA so that people with advanced cancer can benefit from them.
Whole food vs. isolates
B2G2 may not be the only potent component in grape seed extract that provides anti-cancer properties. Studies with isolated phytochemicals may not always give the expected results because many different compounds work together to produce beneficial changes in the body. But, pharmaceutical companies are more interested in isolating specific compounds and patenting them. However, if whole foods can prevent or arrest the progression of cancer, people would have more control over their health.