Men drinking beer
Men drink beer at a restaurant in Hanoi July 20, 2009. Reuters/Kham

Good news for beer-lovers: That pint just might pave the way to an effective anti-cancer medicine in the near future.

Hops, the content found in beer that gives the drink its bitter flavour, are being widely studied for their health benefits such as stopping diseases at its tracks, as well as preventing bacteria from growing. A group of researchers from the American Chemical Society, or ACS, now say that they are becoming closer to synthesising these little cone-shaped buds, which could lead to the creation of medicines for cancer and anti-inflammatory diseases.

While compounds from hops can be harnessed to make effective pharmaceuticals, the process of extracting them from the plant can be tricky. “When researchers extract healthful chemicals from hops, they first have to determine whether they have separated out the specific compounds they're interested in,” says lead researcher Kristopher Waynant, Ph.D.

In addition to a high performance liquid chromatography, scientists need to compare the results to analytical standards. Currently, there is no such analytical standard for the individual compounds. “If you can figure out how to make these compounds from scratch, you know they are the right ones,” Waynant explains.

To do this, Waynant is attempting to synthesise the compounds in the lab, together with Lucas Sass, an undergraduate student at the University of Idaho. They are particularly focusing on compounds called humulones, which have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. The team is also interested in lupulones that also produce positive biological effects.

The researchers claim they are getting very close to optimising the complete method for producing humulones in the lab. “It's been a lot of trial and error. But it's so exciting when an approach finally works,” Sass says. For his team’s next steps, Waynant hopes to collaborate with biologists and medical researchers to develop active agents for pharmaceuticals to treat cancers or inflammatory diseases from these compounds.

Beer has been found to contain more protein and B vitamins than wine, according to a study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The researchers also claim that the antioxidant content of beer is equivalent to that of wine, which has long been touted for its health benefits.