Could hops help fight cancer?

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The Pacific Northwest grows the majority of the hops used to brew beer in America.

And America's best India pale ale - a style of brew known for its hoppiness - comes from Oregon.

Now researchers at Oregon State University say evidence is mounting that a flavorless chemical component of hops may have cancer-preventing properties.

"This is Oregon. We are one of the Meccas for craft beer," said Jeff Clawson, the manager of the pilot brewing program at Oregon State.

Hops lend beer its bitter flavor. Oregon, Washington and Idaho are the only states that grow the crop.

Researchers are looking into the health benefits of a particular hop compound called Xanthohumol.

"There are one or two other plants in nature that make that compound," said Dr. Fred Stevens, professor of medicinal chemistry at Oregon State. "It's really unique to the hops."

Stevens isolated the compound in a petri dish model. Research found it can actually slow down the process that leads to cancer formation.

"Xanthohumol is a flavonoid found in hops. We've known about it for a long time, but it never received any attention from beer brewers because it has no taste," Stevens said in a Q&A posted on the Linus Pauling Institute website.

"I got interested in xanthohumol back in 1995 when I became a post-doc at Oregon State University with Professor Max Deinzer. We were investigating the chemistry of hops and focused on xanthohumol, which we were able to isolate. Professor Don Buehler, Val Miranda, and I investigated the activity of xanthohumol in cancer cells and found that it induces phase 2 enzymes - enzymes that detoxify carcinogens. That is good for cancer chemoprotection. We also found that xanthohumol inhibits phase 1 enzymes that activate pro-carcinogens. So the effect is two-fold: xanthohumol prevents activation of pro-carcinogens into carcinogens by phase 1 enzymes and helps detoxify carcinogens by the phase 2 process. We can clearly say that xanthohumol is a cancer chemoprotective compound in cell culture."

A supplement containing the hops compound is already on the market in Europe.

"There they showed that that particular supplement can actually decrease the frequency of hot flashes in women," Stevens said.

But the research and the benefits don't stop there. Stevens is performing lab research to study the impact of a specific ingredient found in hops on your metabolism.

"It could cause weight loss," he said.

Researchers treated animals with the hop compound and it "caused the animals to lose weight, or they didn't gain as much weight compared to animals that were not treated."

Stevens said it could potentially help prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.

"For those people, for a certain fraction of those people, it could have beneficial effects," he said.

Unfortunately for beer lovers, there isn't enough Xanthohumol in beer to get the benefits just from quaffing pints of IPA.

How much is enough remains to be determine. Researchers are still investigating how much of the Xanthohumol people would need to take to see a health benefit.