10:43am Sunday 05 April 2020

Anticancer Activity from Select Herbal Additives Found in Ancient Alcoholic Beverages

New biomolecular archaeological evidence backed up by increasingly sophisticated scientific testing techniques are uncovering medicinal remedies discovered, tested, and sometimes lost, throughout millennia of human history—herbs, tree resins, and other organic materials dispensed by ancient fermented beverages like wine and beer. Did those ancient “remedies” work-and if so, is there something we can learn—or re-learn—from our ancestors to help sick people today? The answer is now a definitive yes, thanks to early positive results from laboratory testing conducted by researchers at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory run by archaeochemist and ancient alcohol expert Patrick E. McGovern, PhD.

Over the past two years, researchers working on a unique joint project, “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery,” have been testing compounds found in ancient fermented beverages from China and Egypt for their anticancer properties. Several compounds—specifically luteolin from sage and ursolic acid from thyme and other herbs attested in ancient Egyptian wine jars, ca 3150 BCE, and artemisinin and its synthetic derivative, artesunate, and isoscopolein from wormwood species (Artemisia), which laced an ancient Chinese rice wine, ca 1050 BCE—showed promising and positive test tube activity against lung and colon cancers.

The next stage, testing of these compounds against lung cancer in animal models, is being planned for the future. A review of the research undertaken, and early results obtained, is available in the July 2010 issue of International Journal of Oncology.

Co-author Melpo Christofidou-Solomidou, PhD, research associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care and an Abramson Cancer Center Investigator, noted that the early results were especially promising: “Artesunate is an old drug that has been used in humans for malaria, but now it is being ‘rediscovered’ for use against lung cancer. Analysis of artesunate showed potent anticarcinogenic properties in lung cancer cells—a very encouraging sign. We are ready to take these findings, and this ancient/modern compound, to the next stage in testing.”

The full  Penn Museum news release is available at:

High-resolution images are available to media download:



Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $3.6 billion enterprise. 

Penn’s School of Medicine is currently ranked #2 in U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools, and is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $367.2 million awarded in the 2008 fiscal year. 

Penn Medicine’s patient care facilities include:

Additional patient care facilities and services include Penn Medicine at Rittenhouse, a Philadelphia campus offering inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient care in many specialties; as well as a primary care provider network; a faculty practice plan; home care and hospice services; and several multispecialty outpatient facilities across the Philadelphia region.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2009, Penn Medicine provided $733.5 million to benefit our community.

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