Bitter Promise: Hops Research Yields Clues for Cancer and Diabetes Treatment

Beer and Health by | Jul 2016 | Issue #114
Illustration by Kyle Smart

Anyone who has agonized through endless helpings of Brussels sprouts and broccoli at grandmother’s dinner table knows that the bitterest green vegetables are supposed to be the healthiest. Fortunately for those who aren’t big fans of the cabbage family, there might be another option. New research is opening up the possibility that the bitter elements in hops could form the basis for diabetes and cancer treatments in the future.

“Bitter is kind of synonymous with having medicinal value,” says Kristopher Waynant, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Idaho who recently presented his work on synthesizing hops at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

This may be no surprise for some. German wisdom has long held that beer is good for the gut while certain studies have pointed out that beer has more protein and vitamins than wine (as well as more calories) and a comparable amount of antioxidants, although the latter is oft-touted for its healthful qualities.

Now a number of pharmacists and researchers have found that humulones and lupulones isolated from hops may kill leukemia and prostrate-related tumor cells as well as stop the growth and spread of cancer cells. Others picked up on the old Delaware Indian practice of using hops to relieve toothaches and earaches and conducted lab tests that show humulones and other hop elements may inhibit some of the acids that mediate inflammation in mice.

“Not only is [hoppy beer] liquid courage, it’s also anti-inflammatory,” notes Waynant. “Compounds in hops are good leads toward potential medicines.”

Jeffrey Bland, the CEO of KinDex Pharmaceuticals, says his company is currently in phase two of testing a new drug derived from some of the acids concentrated in the aromatic cones against polycystic ovary syndrome—a condition related to insulin regulation and diabetes, which is also a major cause of infertility in women. He says that if tests go well, the drug could be approved for use, but that step is more than two years away.

There has been controversy over some of Bland’s previous health-related claims in the past though, and an independent researcher who didn’t wish to be named is skeptical about the close links between KinDex and certain nutritional supplement companies. But Bland says he intends to publish his research on the hops derivative and polycystic ovary syndrome.

In any case, the medicine is still undergoing early clinical trials. Esther Eisenberg, a medical officer at the National Institute of Health, says that the drug looks promising but hesitates to get too excited as the hops derivative could turn out to have some side effects. “It’s something to keep one’s eyes on,” she says.

Meanwhile, scientists in Belgium are currently researching hops compounds that could fight against the inflammation of cancer cells or tumors. In many cases, however, it isn’t always clear which specific acids are combating which condition. Waynant is working to synthesize these acids and classify them so that they can be used for future medication. “It could be cheaper and easier,” he says.

A homebrewer himself, Waynant stresses that this hops research doesn’t mean that drinking beer is necessarily beneficial, as the level of chemical compounds in a single beer is much too low to make any significant health difference. “I wouldn’t say drink two beers and call me in the morning,” he jokes.

Eisenberg is also skeptical about the health benefits of beer, at least where diabetes and related syndromes are concerned. Hops may provide some benefit, but the high levels of sugar and carbohydrates in beers like Double IPAs aren’t likely to do any good for diabetes-related conditions and might actually worsen blood glucose. It also goes without saying that mixing alcohol with many prescribed drugs isn’t a good idea, depending on your condition.

The findings of these studies could have a positive effect on the beer industry, however. For starters, Waynant says that by synthesizing the alpha and beta acids in hops and determining their exact chemical properties, you could quantify the amounts of each acid with greater accuracy, enabling brewers to formulate recipes with considerable precision. “You could make sure your Pliny the Elder tastes like Pliny the Elder every year,” he says.

The research could also benefit hop growers. Currently the vast majority of hops are produced for the beer industry. But if more hops are needed for the pharmaceutical or even nutritional supplements industry, it could create a larger, more attractive market for hops farmers in the future.

“There’s a potential that the hop industry could seriously benefit from this,” says Waynant.