Garlic may not ward off vampires, but scientific research indicates that it does provide a number of health benefits, exhibiting antifungal and antibacterial properties, and seeming to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain kinds of cancer. Animal studies have also shown it to fight malaria. Exactly how garlic works against such disparate foes, however, has proved somewhat difficult to understand. To that end, findings announced yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Atlanta provide some insight. According to the report, both malaria and cancer cells succumb to the same garlic compounds.

To probe garlic's protective powers, Ian Crandall of the University of Toronto and colleagues focused on compounds called disulfides that are known to have antifungal, antibacterial and anticancer properties. The team tested 11 synthetic disulfide compounds against malaria-infected cells and cancer cells. Those that effectively combated the malarial cells, they found, also eliminated the cancer cells.

Crandall suspects that their shared susceptibility may stem from their dependence on what is known as the glutathione system. In this cell system, the antioxidant and detoxifier glutathione is reduced and stored for use later, when it is needed to absorb damage. Cells that rapidly reproduce, such as those afflicted by cancer or malaria, are particularly dependent on this glutathione system because toxins are natural byproducts of metabolism. As it turns out, the garlic disulfide Ajoene inhibits glutathione reduction, which can be a death sentence for malaria-infected cells and cancer cells.

Looking forward, Crandall hopes that such disulfide compounds may one day find use in the treatment of both malaria and cancer. For now, however, he and his colleagues must endure the perfume of the stinking rose while they work. "Does this stuff smell like garlic? Well, every time we open a vial of it in the lab everybody runs."