Contrary to popular belief, cancer research involves a lot more than studying drugs for chemotherapy. To have the greatest impact in cancer care, we have to target the disease from all angles. Exploring those alternative angles is precisely what you’ll find many of the researchers doing in the lab at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute.
Odd as it may sound, grapes seeds are what we’re currently studying. Our work confirms there’s definitely more to them than meets the eye, including the potential to decrease risk of cancer and counteract cancer cell growth.
What’s the connection?
Grape seeds are known as botanicals. The use of botanicals, like garlic, green tea, cranberry and other natural extracts, as medical remedies can be traced back centuries across different cultures. Despite this history, it’s only recently that technology has allowed us to really explore the connection between botanicals and a specific condition: cancer.
My team and I focused our study on colorectal cancer for a very specific reason. Botanicals like curcumin and green tea have shown some success in attacking cancer stem cells, but we chose to use grape seeds because of a specific actives they possess called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). These compounds have superior bioavailability, meaning they are well-absorbed by the body, and they have been shown to help counteract the growth of certain tumors.
Colon cancer manifests itself as a tumor and is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. Seventy-five percent of patients have no family history or genetic predisposition, but research has shown that changes to lifestyle and diet could help prevent the condition. This made it the ideal cancer to pair against our tumor-taming OPCs.
To understand how botanicals interacted with colorectal cancer, we had to attack the cancer at its source: cancer stem cells. Cancer development, growth and in many cases, its ability to develop a resistance to chemotherapy, is believed to be driven by these bundles of cells.
With this knowledge, we set out to study what impact grape seed extract might have on colorectal cancer if it was targeted directly at these cancer stem cells.
Testing our theory
We studied how OPCs interacted with colorectal cancer stem cells using two models:
- “In vitro” tests, where interaction is studied under a microscope using lab samples
- “In vivo” tests, where interaction is studied in living subjects
By testing in this manner, we were able to provide multiple layers of evidence to support the case that OPCs have anti-cancer qualities. In fact, the research allowed us to establish a more precise profile of how OPCs interact with cancer stem cells.
Our tests showed OPCs suppressed the growth of existing tumor cells and prevented the formation of new ones in treated areas. Most interestingly, where many colorectal cancer stem cells demonstrate a regenerative tendency despite being targeted by chemotherapy, the colorectal cancer cells receiving a combination of chemotherapy and OPC targeting showed no sign of regeneration.
OPCs could help prevent development of a cancer and be capable of counteracting the growth of a tumor.
These findings reinforce our assertion that OPCs could be both chemo-preventative, meaning they prevent the development of a cancer, and anti-tumorigenic, meaning they’re capable of counteracting the growth of a tumor.
But what does this mean for the millions of people diagnosed with cancer every year?
While chemotherapy drugs have a broader impact in treating cancer, the low toxicity, cost-effectiveness and other proven health benefits of botanicals present them as promising supplements to give people battling cancer the best chances of survival.
The outlook for botanicals in this space is encouraging, and my team and I will continue to explore this and other alternative angles in our work in the hope of one day putting an end to this deadly disease.
The findings of our grape seed study were recently published in one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific journals, Scientific Reports.