“Well, you see, Norm, it’s like this. A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it’s the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.
In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Now, as we know, excessive intake of alcohol kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine.
Is beer the cure for cancer? In real life, I’m a scientist who studies the structure and function of naturally occurring molecules. I also happen to drink a little beer now and then. It’s not that uncommon that these two interests cross paths in the form of a happy hour once in a while, but it’s really rare that I get a chance to link cancer research and beer.
So while reading some journals for work today, I came across an article entitled “Xanthohumol Induces Apoptosis in Human Malignant Glioblastoma Cells by Increasing Reactive Oxygen Species and Activating MAPK Pathways”. That’s kind of a mouthful. I’ve included the table of contents image from the paper, but if you understand what it means you’re a better biochemist than I am. Let’s just say that scientists are typically not known for their graphic design prowess, and this is no exception. In layman’s terms, the title of this paper is saying that xanthohumol, one of the chemical constituents of hops and structurally related to humulones (the so-called alpha acids), kills malignant brain cancer cells in a certain very specific and selective way. Believe it or not, their evidence is pretty convincing – they are able to show that certain types of brain cancer cell lines are especially susceptible to death by xanthohumol. Pretty cool stuff.
Think about that for a moment – components of beer can selectively kill brain cancer cells. Could it be that there’s some truth to the famous Cliff Claven buffalo theory we joke about? Does drinking more beer kill off diseased cells? There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that compounds that are found in beer and wine have just such a cancer chemoprotective effect. Phenolic compounds like xanthohumol are found in relatively high concentrations in hops, and have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier (get into the brain), and can have a real biological effect. This is backed up by some interesting biochemistry (albeit at higher concentrations than you’d get by just drinking a beer or two). But it has yet to show a measurable effect on any disease.
You’ve also probably heard about resveratrol, a phenolic compound found in small quantities in red wine that is highly controversial: it has been reported to have such bizarre properties as extending life, preventing cancer, causing cancer, neuroprotective effects, cardioprotective effects, and antidiabetic effects, among others (whew!). The real reason it’s controversial is that the evidence for these claims is murky, unclear, and sometimes downright contradictory. Just because you can show that a compound causes a change in biochemistry, it doesn’t mean that it’s a cure for a disease. Phenolic compounds clearly do lots of different things, and act by highly complex mechanisms, not all of which are beneficial. This means that quacks like Kevin Trudeau are happy to sell them to you at 3 AM on channel 96 as a “dietary suppliment”, but also means that so far the FDA hasn’t approved them for the treatment of a disease.* They aren’t real drugs. As far as I know the closest any compounds like that have come to being a real drug was SRT501, a resveratrol-like compound that failed spectacularly in a billion dollar clinical drug development program by GlaxoSmithKline last year because it couldn’t beat a placebo (wouldn’t you like to participate in a clinical trial trying to show beneficial effects of beer drinking?).
The truth is that xanthohumol probably falls into a similar category as resveratrol – some potential, but really tough to prove what’s going on and its true activity is far from proven. Which is good, because it keeps scientists like me employed trying to figure it out. More research is needed – keep on drinking.
So the next time someone gives you crap about drinking too much beer, remember to let them know you’re doing your part to prevent brain cancer.
*I consider beer a dietary supplement. But I’m not sure if I would buy it from Kevin Trudeau.