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November 03, 2008— Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Beer drinkers rejoice! With help from NRC researchers, your favourite cold beverage may one day not only quench your thirst, but also help ward off cancer.

Studies conducted over the past decade show that a natural product found in hops (a key flavouring agent used in beer) packs a powerful punch for both the prevention and treatment of certain types of cancer, says Dr. Jonathan Page, a research officer at the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon.

The phytochemical, called xanthohumol, can activate antioxidant proteins in human cells that help protect us against cancer or other diseases. And in lab studies, the compound has been shown to selectively kill and prevent the growth of cancer cells.

Dr. Page cautions that xanthohumol will never be a "first line" anti-cancer drug, primarily because its "bioavailability" — that is, the "effective dose" that can circulate in the body and reach cancerous targets — is limited. "Xanthohumol is viewed more as a chemical that could be incorporated into our diet and work over a long period of time to prevent certain cancers, particularly colon cancer, since it can get into the intestinal tract through food," he says.

Hop cones contain a natural anti-cancer compound called xanthohumol.
Hop cones contain a natural anti-cancer compound called xanthohumol.

Naturally, the hops and brewing industries would like to capitalize on the health benefits of this compound by marketing new brands of xanthohumol-enriched beer. But there are challenges, stresses Dr. Page. Xanthohumol is unstable when boiled so it has trouble surviving the brewing process — a standard mug of beer contains negligible levels of this compound. One solution is to harvest xanthohumol from hops and then add it to beer once the brewing process is completed — an approach some European brewers are now taking, he notes.

In future, NRC research could help hops breeders dramatically increase the yield of xanthohumol, which normally accounts for about 1 percent of the dry weight of hops. Working with scientists in Germany and the U.S., Dr. Page has been studying the biosynthesis of xanthohumol in "glandular trichomes" — specialized cells where key hop compounds are produced.

"So far, we've identified the genes responsible for the first and last of three steps in xanthohumol biosynthesis," says Dr. Page. "We're now hot on the trail of the middle step." Once these genes are identified, Hopsteiner, a multinational hops processor, is interested in using the NRC research to help breed hop varieties with higher levels of xanthohumol.


Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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