CULTURE

Greece’s grapes and olives are being studied for their life-saving properties

Greek varieties of grapes and olives appear to contain extracts that could help prevent cancer, according to promising research carried out at the University of Larissa over the past few years. Demetrios Kouretas, who is associate professor at Larissa University and is directing research at the physiology and toxicology laboratory at the university’s Department of Biochemistry-Biotechnology, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition this week about the encouraging nature of the group’s work, the results of which are to be presented at conferences in Greece later this year. Work carried out abroad has shown the benefits of food products including red wine, tea and soya. «Here we have a number of different species which have not been studied, yet are interesting,» said Kouretas. «Our country is blessed with thousands of pharmaceutical plants and little is known about the activity of their constituents,» he said. Kouretas explained that plant-derived chemicals play an important role in the so-called chemo-prevention of cancer. It has been demonstrated that many plant-derived substances or plant extracts from tea, grapes, olive leaves and so on have a profound beneficial effect in cancer models in experimental animals. The same has been shown in epidemiological studies in humans. Kouretas returned to Greece from the United States in 1994 with a distinguished academic and research record including a stint as research associate in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Molecular Pharmacology. His interest in cancer prevention stemmed from evidence that 95 percent of cancers are linked to environmental factors and/or lifestyle. «This clearly demonstrates that the current leading concept in the battle against cancer, that is, a strong effort to cure the disease with drugs, is not the solution to the cancer problem,» explained Kouretas, observing that while it is true that the incidence of cancer has increased in recent years, if one takes into account the increase in the lifespan, it is evident that the overall incidence has more or less been the same over the last 20 years. «As it became apparent that lifestyle and environment are the principal factors in carcinogenesis, the concept of prevention rather than cure has become crucial,» he explained. For some years now, Kouretas has been working in the area of molecular carcinogenesis, studying the molecular mechanisms of anti-cancer activity of Greek varieties of grapes and olives. Applying a number of enzymatic or chemical screening tests, a great number of extracts from domestic varieties have now been tested and the results published in international scientific journals. They are to be presented in Greece in October at an international conference on cancer and at a biochemistry conference in Larissa in November. The most interesting outcome of the research at the University of Thessaly has been that Greek white grapes have shown greater anti-cancer effects than red grapes, which are traditionally believed to be more potent as cancer chemo-protective agents, said Kouretas. «This has two practical conclusions. First, in the last few years many groups from France have reported that red grapes and red wine are strong anti-cancer agents if consumed every day over a period of years. «Now, Greek scientists are showing that white grapes show a greater effect, which is very interesting. Secondly, it is possible that the patenting and commercialization of Greek grape extracts can be a strong new scientific sector in Greece, providing knowledge and products in many countries in the West,» said Kouretas, who hopes that within the next couple of years the extracts will be patented and put on the market. «Our grapes have an advantage compared to other products that are being sold abroad today and feature prominently on the shelves of many foreign speciality stores that sell plant-oriented formulas against cancer and heart diseases. This area is new and should be supported by the government in the future.” Advocate of sustainable practices Demetrios Kouretas originally studied pharmacy at the University of Patras, and obtained a PhD in biochemistry. He advocates a role for biotechnology in supporting sustainable practices in agriculture and has just published a book titled (in Greek) «Genetically Modified Products.» «Politicians are now trying to convince us of what scientists have not been able to; that anyone who doesn’t adopt the technology of genetical modification is a reactionary. Yet the true place of biotechnology is not there, but wherever it can play a substantial role for societies and states, in the development of sustainable practices such as organic farming and the true protection of the environment,» he recently told Kathimerini’ s OIKO magazine.