Vintage image of group of people in a laboratory.

In wine we trust – how feeding cells with wine cured cancer

Red wine cures cancer! That caught your attention, didn’t it? It’s just an example of titles or statements that can quickly spread on social media and cause confusion, in addition to a smile. An incomplete truth gets massive attention for a while to eventually dissipate in the chaos of news that we are all exposed to every day. I will explain why this study is interesting and can work as an example of how many unfinished conclusions attract the media’s attention.

I found a headline similar to the one described above while scrolling through my feed about two years ago. It was a small article informing about a publication from 2014 where the authors had treated lung cancer cell lines with wine. The key conclusion can be read in the abstract: “red wine inhibits the proliferation of lung cancer cells and blocks clonogenic survival at low concentrations”. Simply put, wine keeps cancer cells from growing.

I had to smile. It’s cute, and I’d just found a new topic to bring to my next cocktail party. “Did you know that wine could potentially cure you of cancer?” (For the best experience, read this part with a nasal tone, preferably with slow and pretentious laughter to round it up). The killer topic of the evening, without a doubt. Of course, shortly after this thought process, the scientist in me woke up and started to realize the consequences such a story could bring about, especially with their spread in social or mainstream media.

Messages of this type will spread, and that’s a guarantee. Just reflect on what’s going through your mind when reading a statement like “wine cures cancer”. Maybe it’s something along the lines of:

Cancer is bad. Wine is tasty and fun to drink. Therefore, if wine can stop cancer, this piece of news is awesome, and we should raise our glasses and drink (wine, of course) to the advancements in science! Cheers!

The problem

The mentioned article treated lung cancer cells in culture dishes (sometimes called an in vitro experiment) with different concentrations (up to 5%) of wine. They could conclude that the wine could impede cancer cell growth and change the expression of certain protein markers important for cell growth (and thus also for some cancers).

It seems so simple to treat cancer after all, right? “And here we are wasting time and tax money to find medical treatments against this terrible disease while we could just drink ourselves healthy?” the crowd yells in harmony. These arguments and scenarios are hypothetical, but I believe that headlines insinuate cancer treatment’s simplicity can cause some pretty nasty problems. It can change your attitude toward cancer research and cancer treatment.

So, is wine drinking a good treatment for lung cancer? No, it’s not. The (somewhat confusing) article reported very preliminary observations. It points to the fact that something in wine stops cancer growth in a culture dish. No mechanism is confirmed, questionable concentrations of wine are used that would be hard to administer to the lungs in a real treatment scenario, no proper controls, and the cells are grown in culture dishes at the low confluence.

The project can, at best, set up ideas for future, more reliable studies. But for now, it’s only an observation.

Here’s the problem: as good a cocktail party conversation as this might be, unquestioned trust in such studies can cause some serious issues. Here are a couple of problems these headlines can cause:

Undermining the need for conventional treatments

Do we need conventional treatments or research if the answer is as simple as drinking red wine? In other words, what point is there in spending money on treatment if wine, herbs, fruits, etc., can cure us of it?

Don’t get me wrong. We need to broaden our spectrum and accept new and alternative ways of curing or treating cancer patients. However, these strategies must be carefully validated and tested on a large cohort of subjects before being accepted as reliable alternatives. But if we are constantly exposed to limited studies claiming “the new and natural way to beat cancer” and rarely get to read about the true advances in cancer research, then we can expect general skepticism against expensive treatments and research. People will instead turn to more exciting and simple ”solutions”.

Who needs medicine anyway?

This one is related to the point above. Most of the time, scientific publications explicitly state if their findings are preliminary. They may also invite readers to complete or continue the work on a specific topic (which is the case with the above-mentioned wine study). These precautions are often too boring to be added to an online article; it diminishes the fun and impact. These parts are, therefore, often not mentioned by the mainstream media. As a result, we (the readers) might get the impression that the real advancements are in the incomplete, alternative findings and not in the boring, ongoing studies that try to understand and explain biological mechanisms. We fail to be informed about the research’s not-so-sexy but more complete findings.

In vitro studies are not enough

We sometimes need to be careful with scientific findings. It’s very common for media or even spokespeople in the scientific community to mention in vitro (culture dish) studies and findings using animal models as a final answer to a certain disease. But remember, these findings are still very preliminary. In vitro studies are very important as a starting point. They teach us stuff. However, they cannot tell you what the result would be in an entire organism in the context of all the other tissues and chemical or biological processes in our bodies. This homeostasis, or the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus that would tend to disturb its normal condition or function (, is impossible to observe in a culture dish.

A lot of nasty things kill cells in a culture dish. Strong acids, detergents, sodium peroxide… That doesn’t mean they could ever be safe to use as therapy.

Animal models and gene-dropping are not enough

Animal models are another example of preliminary results that we love referring to when published. Mouse studies are the most common ones. Animal models are crucial in research to find new knowledge and treatments. However, only a few findings in animal models can be directly translated into humans. We cannot make conclusions based on animal studies alone. We need more than that.

This is why clinical trials are so important. We need to understand how the findings hold up in humans. Let’s repeat and be clear; animal models like mice, rats, fruit flies, and fish are important to use in science. They contribute significantly to the development of our biological understanding and the development of treatments. The only thing I’m saying is that we cannot stop there.

Last thing to this point: when articles or scientists present findings by name-dropping genes (or gene-dropping) from in vitro or animal model studies. Example: “This important gene-expression changes when you go to the sauna, and it also changes the expression of gene X, Y but not Z… shown in a dish with cells so the sauna is good”. Please! Do not take notes. Again, it’s not enough information to confirm anything. At this point, it’s only gene-dropping. (…although I must admit that I love those saunas…).

The fix

I want to clarify this; I’m not criticizing the abovementioned publication. Sure, it’s confusing and, in the end, doesn’t agree with my idea of how good quality research should be performed. It could, after all, lead to a better understanding of mechanisms in lung cancer. I’m criticizing the portrayal of “sexy” stories like these. Unfortunately, they catch your attention. It gives you a skewed idea of what is happening in cancer research and other research fields. We need to be able to access a wider amount of quality information and make more research available to the public. Maybe this page could be a good start. I’m just putting it out there…

Here are some useful guidelines for now. Use them next time you read an attractive headline about science:

⊕ Understand that there are limitations to the conclusions made in in vitro-only studies.

⊕ Be careful if the suggested treatment is tested in mice only. The information is interesting, but we need more before we can start recommending friends to look it up

⊕ Be skeptical if the claims you hear should be legit just because “studies say”. Come on; we need to be more specific than that.

⊕ There are a lot of problems in the scientific community, just as in any community. However, it is still the most reliable and controlled source of information out there when it comes to scientific findings. We’re not trying to rip you off or fool you.

⊕ Again, be skeptical if someone claims that a herb cures a disease. Ask for references. Or even better, look it up yourself before chewing thyme to treat your ringworm infection.

⊕ It’s OK not to know the answer. It’s better than filling the gap with random, non-validated knowledge.

Again, be a skeptic

The internet is full of incomplete results, highlighted as cures or treatments. It is also full of references to plain bad science. Today it’s more important than ever to navigate through the information overload with critical thinking. If something seems too good to be true, guess what? It probably is. So ask questions.

I’ll give you a good one: what are you supposed to do with the information about the mentioned “wine publication”? Are you supposed to inhale a glass of wine each evening? How do you get the right concentrations of wine into your lungs?

I’ll stop the wine-ing here. Until the next thyme, keep it real.

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