Cancer develops as a result of multiple factors (e.g., chronic inflammatory conditions and exposure to carcinogens) that create imbalance in the body, especially in terms of free radicals. Chronic imbalance that the body cannot overcome causes damage to cells and creates gene instability. Ultimately this can lead to the dysfunctional cell processes we call cancer, which establishes an even more damaging, unregulated, and cancer-promoting environment. Lab and animal studies have demonstrated that resveratrol exerts many effects to help prevent cancer from fully developing or recurring. In already established cancers resveratrol’s effects can help stop further growth and metastasis, shrink existing tumors, and improve outcomes of conventional chemotherapy treatment.148

How Does It Work?

In basic terms, resveratrol is an environmentally responsive, adaptable molecule that promotes balancing biochemical effects in the body. Some of the specific anti-tumor actions of resveratrol that have been shown experimentally include:148

  • Stops activation of pro-cancer enzymes by carcinogenic substances that cause gene instability while stimulating enzymes that help get rid of these cancer-causing agents.148
  • Increases effectiveness of treatment with TRAIL cytokines, non-toxic proteins naturally found in the body and potentially useful in cancer therapy that can kill cancer cells by activating an immune system mechanism.149
  • Interrupts cancer cell cycle and causes cancer cell death.148
  • Inhibits inflammatory and growth proteins that stimulate tumor and new blood vessel growth prompted by these dysfunctional conditions near the tumor which allow it to grow and spread.148
  • Helps regulate hormones (e.g., estrogen) that can favor cancer growth if unbalanced.148
  • Overcoming chemoresistance—the survival mechanisms that allow cancer cells to defeat conventional cancer drug treatments—by suppressing genes that produce proteins which inhibit cell death.42,150
  • Changes the distribution of receptors that trigger cell death on tumor cell surfaces and helps activate proteins that promote cell death.150

However, some of these effects, though demonstrated, still puzzle researchers. This is because resveratrol molecules pass through the body quickly and thus seem to offer poor bioavailability to targeted organs. In order for a substance to exert beneficial influences physiologically, it is thought that a certain level within the body must be met—as determined by lab studies, and depending on the substance. The mystery of many antioxidants, including resveratrol, is how it achieves measurable effects in the body without seeming to reach levels determined to be effective in laboratory experiments.151

Despite the many questions that surround the mechanisms and potential uses of resveratrol as a chemopreventive and therapeutic agent against cancer, the multitude of studies indicate that resveratrol has the ability to stop malignant tumors from forming, growing, and spreading. With so many positive preclinical results, the next step in the research world (as for any drug) are clinical trials. As of mid-2011, there are a few ongoing and planned clinical trials testing resveratrol in the United States. These specifically involve colon cancer patients and are designed to assess the safety and effects of resveratrol, by itself and in combination with the chemotherapy drug bortezomib. These include patients where the cancer has spread to the liver.150

Evidence of Benefit

Although the mechanisms may not be completely understood, research thus far has supported continued investigation of natural substances and improved delivery systems. Studies indicate that phytochemicals like resveratrol target multiple cellular pathways to trigger death in cancerous and pre-cancerous cells, which suggests greater benefits than conventional chemotherapy inhibitors that target only specific single cellular pathways.152

For example, both lab and animal studies using pterostilbene (a natural analog of resveratrol) showed that it halted metastasis of liver cancer by stopping the activation of several of the hepatocellular carcinoma cell pathways.153 Additional laboratory research determined that the combination of certain phytochemicals, like gamma-tocotrienol, EGCG, and resveratrol, offers synergistically enhanced effects against certain breast cancer cell lines—suggesting that the dietary combination of these substances could also be beneficial outside the lab and in the body.154

Research continues to provide evidence that resveratrol engages in beneficial preventive and therapeutic anti-tumor activity against a variety of cancers:

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The activation of cellular molecules (particularly enzymatic proteins) that dictate cellular behavior; activation of some pathways leads to disease.
A similar, but not identical substance.
The spread of a disease to another part of the body.
A certain form of vitamin E; the most common form found in human diets.

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