A 3000-year-old Chinese bronze jar found in a tomb. The jar still contained a liquid herbal rice wine when it was found in 1998. image: Z. Zhang/Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province

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Scientists have often looked to nature in the quest for new drugs to treat everything from cancer to infectious diseases, and they’ve found effective drugs in unexpected places – sea sponges, the bark of the Pacific yew tree, a throat swab from a chicken. But archaeologist Patrick McGovern and an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are using a different approach: they’re looking to the past in search of new drugs.

Our ancient ancestors developed herbal and plant-based medicinal remedies through a centuries-long process of trial and error. We now know that many of these remedies are effective because they contain pharmaceutically active ingredients. For example salicylic acid, from which aspirin is derived, was isolated from the bark of the willow tree which was used as a pain-reliever in ancient Greece. But how many ancient remedies have been forgotten?

McGovern and other researchers are attempting to rediscover these lost medicines by testing the pharmaceutical properties of compounds found in ancient alcoholic beverages from Egypt and China. In both cultures many traditional remedies were prepared by soaking the root, leaves, stems or other parts of a plant in wine. The wine’s alcohol content was able to dissolve various botanical compounds from the plants. These compounds would have flavored the wine and, McGovern suspected, some of them may have been pharmaceutically active. To test this idea he analyzed 5000-year-old wine residues from ceramic jars found in the tomb of one of ancient Egypt’s first rulers as well as liquid wine from a Chinese tomb, which, amazingly, had remained sealed in a bronze container for over 3000 years. Chemical analysis revealed that the Egyptian wine was primarily grape-based while the Chinese wine was rice-based, but both wines contained residues from a variety of other herbs, fruits, and even tree sap.

The molecular structure of ursolic acid, which is found naturally in thyme and other herbs and shows some anti-cancer activity.

Having partnered with cancer researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, McGovern was particularly interested in finding potential anti-cancer compounds in the ancient wines. The most promising compounds isolated from the wines were Ursolic acid, found in the Egyptian wine and artemisinin, found in the Chinese wine. Ursolic acid is found naturally in thyme and other herbs, which were presumably added to the ancient Egyptian wine. When researchers exposed cancer cells to ursolic acid in the laboratory, they found that it suppressed tumor growth under low-oxygen conditions. This is a promising result since most dense, solid tumors thrive under these conditions.

The molecular structure of artesunate, a derivative of artemisinin, which is found in wormwood. It's currently used as an anti-malarial drug, and has also showed promising anti-cancer properties in laboratory tests.

Artemisinin is naturally present in wormwood, which was likely used as an herbal additive in the ancient Chinese wine. Wormwood has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine to treat skin diseases and malaria. In the 1970′s Chinese scientists isolated artemisinin from wormwood and found that it was the fastest-acting anti-malarial drug ever discovered. Artesunate, a safer synthetic derivative of artemisinin is still used today in combination with other drugs to treat malaria.  In laboratory tests at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center artemisinin and artesunate had particularly strong anti-cancer effects on lung and pancreatic cancer cells. Based on these findings, researchers plan to continue tests to determine the usefulness of artesunate in fighting pancreatic and lung cancer.

This research provides a fascinating glimpse of what people were drinking thousands of years ago, and may tell us something about how they thought about medicine. Still, there is no way to know if the makers of these ancient wines intended them to be used as medicinal remedies. And even if the wines were intended for medicinal use, it seems unlikely, although not impossible, that they were intended to fight cancerous tumors. But even so, thousands of years later these wines have provided inspiration for modern research that may result in future life-saving drugs.

Further Reading

Visit Patrick McGovern’s research site to learn more about archaeological oncology

McGovern, . (2010). Anticancer activity of botanical compounds in ancient fermented beverages (Review) International Journal of Oncology, 37 (1) DOI: 10.3892/ijo_00000647

  3 Responses to “Looking to the Past in Search of New Drugs”

  1. I’d like to know what 3000 year old wine would taste like. Notes of petrol?

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ResearchBlogging.org, Doogie. Doogie said: RT @ResearchBlogs: Looking to the Past in Search of New Drugs http://goo.gl/fb/DQatT [...]

  3. [...] Looking to the Past in Search of New Drugs. Dan Bailey at Smells Like Science describes an ironically novel approach to drug development — analyzing the remnants of chemicals used by the ancients! [...]

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