The healing powers of ordinary foods could soon be used to make life-saving drugs. And you can cook up the benefits right now. By Anastasia Stephens
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 & 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 …