A Cancer Cure from Squashed Grapes? An Anonymous Donor Hopes So

We’re really curious about where this one’s coming from. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has announced a five-year, $20 million gift from an anonymous donor—which is news in and of itself—but what’s really interesting is that the gift is to be used specifically to study the effects of antioxidant muscadine grape extract on prostate and breast cancer.

Is it a big grape seller, or someone who’s got vineyards in the family? Is it one of North Carolina’s more than 160 wineries, looking to turn a profit on the sale of grape skins? (Wineries often sell grape skins to nutraceutical companies for use in antioxidant and resveratrol supplements.) Or could it be someone simply looking to promote North Carolina’s largely unsung state fruit?

Regardless of the gift’s provenance, it’s definitely outside the mainstream. You see medical research gifts for studying protein folding linked to brain cancer. You see medical research gifts pushing a mouse model for a heart attack cure out of the lab and into the clinic. You don’t see medical research gifts stacking up behind a nutraceutical supplement that purportedly cuts cancer risk.

It’s not that the research behind grape-based antioxidant supplements is iffy—because grape skins are definitely loaded with antioxidants, and taking antioxidant supplements is never a bad idea, health-wise—it’s that this $20 million gift is about research into what amount to vitamins.

Of course, the whole idea behind this research is to boost grape skin extract from mere dietary supplement to bona fide drug. Grape-skin extract could be the next big cancer drug, and this money is going to slingshot it into the big time—if the numbers are there. Scientists from various disciplines—hypertension and vascular research, hematology and oncology, cancer biology, public health sciences, radiation biology, pathology, and other fields—are coming together on this one to look at grape skin extract from every angle.

The study will include a Phase I trial to determine the toxicity of the extract in patients with solid tumors, and two Phase II trials, one in men with prostate cancer and one in women with triple-negative breast cancer, to determine the effect of the extract on reducing metastatic growth and on quality-of-life issues. Also supported: a preclinical study of the effects of the extract in the treatment of breast cancer; preclinical studies to determine the molecular mechanisms for reductions in tumor growth; the effect of co-administration of the extract with radiation and chemotherapeutics commonly used to treat breast and prostate cancer; and the effect of the extract on co-morbidities, which are often present in patients with prostate and breast cancer.

"A gift of this magnitude can dramatically accelerate the pace of this promising research," said Edward Abraham, dean of the Wake Forest School of Medicine. "We are more likely to see clinical trials in place much sooner because of this investment, and any potential benefits that may be identified would be passed along to patients sooner than would otherwise be possible."