Preventive medicines made from rice, berries and red wine could soon be available to help to prevent cancer and other diseases – and pills could be available by 2010.
Scientists funded by Cancer Research UK hope the active compounds will be used to create the first products in a family of drugs that stop disease before it takes hold. "These agents have proved highly effective in the lab – it is extraordinary," says Professor Will Steward, a cancer and molecular medicine expert who is involved in the research.
A single plant molecule can have a bewildering array of health-promoting effects – curcumin, for example, obtained from the spice turmeric, doesn't only protect against cancer, it's anti-inflammatory and could help combat Alzheimer's.
Many of the molecules scientists are getting excited about are plant pigments. In nature, these act to neutralise damaging molecules created by ultraviolet light. In the body, they do the same job – they stabilise damaging molecules on everything from cell membranes to the gut lining and blood vessels. By preventing damage, they help to prevent inflammation, cancerous changes and other ageing effects.
Other plant molecules with anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects exist to protect the plant from pathogens, but they have the same effect in the human body.
Drugs companies are looking for the most powerful plant molecules to use alone or in combination with existing drugs.
The only downside is that drugs companies don't always look to see how plants were used traditionally. In herbal medicine, whole plant extracts are used, rather than a single molecule. In these extracts, you get dozens of beneficial molecules working together in synergy.
While the new drugs are likely to consist of high concentrations of natural " super-molecules", you can access their health benefits now, in food or as supplements. So which of today's foods will be tomorrow's drugs and how can you use them to stay healthy now?
Broccoli and brussels sprouts
Active molecule Diindolylmethane
The research Combining a potent cocktail of anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties, diindolylmethane from brassica vegetables is set to become one of the leading new phytochemical drugs.
It's already used for treating respiratory papillomatosis tumours, caused by the HPV virus and is in phase III clinical trials for cervical dysplasia. Meanwhile, trials sponsored by the US National Cancer Institute are investigating it as a treatment for cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon. It has also been shown to enhance the effect of the ovarian cancer drug, Taxol.
Benefit now Eat plenty of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale to help strengthen your immune system and fight infection. Diindolylmethane is more potent when brassicas are uncooked. Add coleslaw as a side-dish. Raw broccoli or cauliflower florets can be added to salads or dipped in hummus.
Active molecule Lycopene
The research Lycopene, the red pigment in tomatoes, is in clinical trials for cardiovascular diseases and prostate cancer. Studies have demonstrated that lycopene improves blood flow through the heart. Several large clinical studies indicate it holds real potential for preventing and treating prostate cancer. Drugs companies are now racing to discover what doses of lycopene and which drugs combinations will have an optimal therapeutic effect.
Benefit now Populations studies suggest that a diet rich in tomatoes can reduce prostate cancer risk. Processed tomato products such as tomato paste and puree tend to contain higher lycopene levels. Lycopene is better absorbed with vitamin E, so add unprocessed olive oil to your salad. It's also available as a supplement (Lyc-O-Mato contains 15mg lycopene, the equivalent of six ripe tomatoes, £10.99 for 30caps, www.lycomato. co.uk).
Eggs and spinach
Active molecule Lutein
The research Keep your eye on lutein, especially if you're worried about your eyesight. Lutein, a yellow pigment found in green leafy vegetables and eggs, is making headlines as a potential treatment for eye diseases. Clinical trials show it directly improves human visual performance, helping to prevent the onset of macular degeneration and cataracts. One study in the Journal of the American Optometric Association found that in high enough doses it could even reverse some symptoms of macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the elderly. Currently it's available in up to 20mg doses as a supplement, but more concentrated therapeutic drugs are in the pipeline.
Benefit now On average we eat around 2mg lutein a day. Yet research indicates we need at least 10mg lutein to prevent or ease symptoms of eye disease. Other than eating more green leafy veg and eggs, your best bet is to top up with a supplement. Visisoft Lutein by Just Vitamins contains 10mg lutein (£11.95 for 90tabs, tel: 0800 783 1768).
Active molecule Polyphenols
The research Concentrated extracts of polyphenols in green tea are likely to lead to a range of anti-ageing and lifestyle drugs. Several US trials have found they effectively lower bad cholesterol and enhance brain as well as heart health. Polyphenols in green tea have also been found to reduce arthritic inflammation. Meanwhile, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that concentrated extract of green tea can speed metabolism, aiding weight loss.
Benefit now You can drink green tea regularly, but for a more concentrated hit, take a supplement (Green Tea 400mg by Natures Plus £12.75 for 60 caps, tel: 0207 436 5122).
Active molecule Curcumin
The research Turmeric, the Indian spice that gives curry its yellow tinge, is a powerful anti-inflammatory with cancer-preventive effects. Used in Ayurvedic medicine, the rush is now on to develop the active molecule, curcumin, as a drug. In the past year, some 256 scientific papers have reported benefits ranging from pain relief to cancer prevention. The US National Institutes of Health has four clinical trials under way investigating curcumin treatment for pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, Alzheimer's disease and colorectal cancer. A curcumin pill is expected to benefit arthritis sufferers – curcumin acts as a strong anti-inflammatory but has negligible side effects.
Benefit now Powdered curcumin is not as strong as isolated curcumin, but it does contain other health-promoting molecules and can help ease mild arthritic pain, digestive irritation, bruising and swelling. For a mild effect, add a spoonful of the powdered spice to a curry. For anti-inflammatory effects, stir a teaspoonful into 50ml of water and drink twice daily.
Active molecule Resveratrol
The research Resveratrol, found in red wine, is set to be a leading contender in the new family of anti-ageing drugs. The drug under development by Sirtris Pharmaceuticals gives more than 50 glasses of wine's worth of resveratrol in a single pill. This dose has been found to double physical endurance and enhance lifespan in animal studies. Research suggests it can also offset the negative health effects of high-fat diets, which can lead to the onset of metabolic disorder and diabetes.
Benefit now: There's no way you could get anything near the levels of resveratrol you'll get in the future drug. But you can get significant cardiovascular and anti-cancer benefits from drinking one to two glasses of red wine a day.
Active molecule Tricin
The research People in countries where brown rice is a dietary staple have such low rates of colon cancer, so researchers began investigating why. Among other reasons, they discovered that a substance in rice called tricin has anti-cancer effects in the lower gut. Researchers at the University of Leicester are now evaluating it as a potential preventive medicine.
Benefit now Whenever you cook rice, use brown rice, in which tricin is found. Its protective effect on the bowel will increase the more you eat it. The high-fibre levels in brown rice are also protective against cancers of the gut.
Lentils and soya
Active molecule Sterols
The research Plant sterols, already added to margarines to help lower cholesterol, are set to appear as cholesterol-lowering drugs that could be used alongside statins. Research published by the American Journal of Cardiology found that sterols lowered total cholesterol and reduced bad LDL-cholesterol by a further 10 per cent in patients already eating a heart-healthy diet and taking statins.
Benefit now Plant sterols are hormone-like substances found in seeds, nuts, beans and lentils, soya and tofu. You can top up on levels by eating a sterol-fortified margarine such as Flora ProActiv. The more of these foods you eat, the greater the beneficial effects on your cholesterol. You can also supplement: BioCare's SterolVite costs £19.99 for 90 capsules (0121-433 3727).
Active molecule Capsaicin
The research Capsaicin, the molecule that gives chilli peppers their fiery edge, is the key ingredient in an experimental new painkilling drug, Adlea. Capsaicin has a long-lasting effect in dulling nerve pain and Adlea, which is in phase II trials, is being given as a single injection to dull pain for up to a month. Capsaicin could also prove to be another leading drug in the prevention of cancer – current trials are assessing it for preventive effects on prostate, gut and lung cancers. Researchers in Toronto are also checking it out as a possible treatment for type 1 diabetes.
Benefit now Thai people are famed for their hot curries and have a lower incidence of prostate and gut cancers. Add as much chilli as you dare to stews, salads and curries.
Anastasia Stephens is a medical herbalist at the Hale Clinic, London