The putative health benefits of red wine stem mainly from so-called polyphenol molecules that are known for their antioxidant activity. Stéphane Quideau of the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology in France and his colleagues analyzed an antitumor compound known as acutissimin A, which was first discovered in the bark of oak trees. The researchers found that ingredients of red wine possess two molecules that can potentially react to form acutissimin A. "The grape juice contains the flavonoid precursors catechin and epicatechin," Quideau explains. "During storage, the alcoholic liquid then extracts a whole bouquet of substances out of the oak barrels, including the necessary co-reactant, vescalagin." Indeed, when the team tested samples of red wine that had aged 18 months in oak barrels, they found two types of acutissimin compounds, A and B.
The potential benefits of acutissimin A arise from its ability to inhibit the enzyme DNA topoisomerase II, a target for cancer treatment. In in vitro studies, acutissimin A was 250 times more powerful than etoposide, a clinically used cancer drug. The researchers caution that red wine cannot be considered a cancer preventative. But the findings underscore the promise of polyphenols: Quideau notes that "a number of these substances have already made their way into medicine, but the potential has not been exhausted by a long shot."