In “The Science You Should Have Heard About This Week” we look at exciting, novel pieces of research that have not been majorly featured by the media – and compare and contrast the with some of the silliest bad science reporting out there. We had quite a few candidates for bad science reporting this week, but nothing could compare to the glorious uselessness of the recent reports that Rioja can prevent breast cancer. As it is mostly the case in the “generic food – prevents – cancer” template of bad science reports, what actually happened is that a research group from Brazil published a study looking at a chemical compound (in this case, Resveratol). The study found that Resveratol has an effect on the ability of breast cells to stop themselves from turning cancerous. The compound is present in very, very small concentrations in a variety of foods, one of which is red wine. Of course, people like red wine, so the punchy headline ends up stating that wine in general may help prevent breast cancer. This equivalency between the chemical compound (Resveratol) and the food (wine) is particularly ridiculous if we do some back-of-the-envelope math. A fluid ounce of wine contains about 90 micrograms of Resveratol. In order for it to be effective, a single person needs to take about 20 milligrams of Resveratol, which is equivalent to about 40 glasses of wine a day, or six-and-a-half bottles of wine. Of course, this far exceeds the recommended alcohol intake per day – which of only one glass a day for an average-sized woman. Drinking six bottles of wine a day would be really bad for you, and almost certainly would increase your risk for breast cancer. This study is still useful, of course, as it can help us identify new mechanisms through which cancer works, and perhaps encourage testing for Resveratol supplements, which could actually deliver a useful dose of the compound to people who need it.
In contrast to this festival of uselessness, those interested in cancer research could have been learning about an amazing study published this week by researchers from Harvard University. The authors have identified a mechanism through which breast cancer cells can protect themselves from free radicals – by sensing their presence through a clever calcium-mediated mechanism, which is turn activates a molecule known as TRPA1. The reason this study is so interesting is that TRPA1 does not do very much else in the body, which means that potential new drugs that can stop it from functioning properly would have a very good chance of targeting cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Of course, this study does not provide us with an immediate solution for breast cancer. However, taken together with a variety of other hard-hitting pieces of scientific research, this study can help scientists design new therapies that can, one day, change the lives of cancer patients. The wine will just be a nice bonus.