New biomolecular archaeological evidence backed up by increasingly sophisticated scientific testing techniques are uncovering medicinal remedies discovered, tested, and sometimes lost, throughout millennia of human history—herbs, tree resins, and other organic materials dispensed by ancient fermented beverages like wine and beer. Did those ancient "remedies" work-and if so, is there something we can learn—or re-learn—from our ancestors to help sick people today? The answer is now a definitive yes, thanks to early positive results from laboratory testing conducted by researchers at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory run by archaeochemist and ancient alcohol expert Patrick E. McGovern, PhD.
Over the past two years, researchers working on a unique joint project, "Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery," have been testing compounds found in ancient fermented beverages from China and Egypt for their anticancer properties. Several compounds—specifically luteolin from sage and ursolic acid from thyme and other herbs attested in ancient Egyptian wine jars, ca 3150 BCE, and artemisinin and its synthetic derivative, artesunate, and isoscopolein from wormwood species (Artemisia), which laced an ancient Chinese rice wine, ca 1050 BCE—showed promising and positive test tube activity against lung and colon cancers.
The next stage, testing of these compounds against lung cancer in animal models, is being planned for the future. A review of the research undertaken, and early results obtained, is available in the July 2010 issue of International Journal of Oncology.
Co-author Melpo Christofidou-Solomidou, PhD, research associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care and an Abramson Cancer Center Investigator, noted that the early results were especially promising: "Artesunate is an old drug that has been used in humans for malaria, but now it is being 'rediscovered' for use against lung cancer. Analysis of artesunate showed potent anticarcinogenic properties in lung cancer cells—a very encouraging sign. We are ready to take these findings, and this ancient/modern compound, to the next stage in testing."
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