Compounds in beer may treat some diseases

February 1, 2013

A study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition shows that beer’s bitter compounds may help treat diabetes and some types of cancer. Researchers employing a century-old observational technique have determined the precise configuration of humulones, substances derived from hops that give beer its distinctive flavor. The findings could lead to new pharmaceuticals to treat diabetes, some types of cancer, and other maladies.

There is documentation that beer and its bittering acids, in moderation, have beneficial effects on diabetes, some forms of cancer, inflammation, and perhaps even weight loss. The researchers used a process called X-ray crystallography to figure out the exact structure of those acids, humulone molecules, and some of their derivatives produced from hops in the brewing process. That structure is important to researchers looking for ways to incorporate those substances, and their health effects, into new pharmaceuticals.

Humulone molecules are rearranged during the brewing process to contain a ring with five carbon atoms instead of six. At the end of the process two side groups are formed that can be configured in four different ways. Which of the forms the molecule takes determines its “handedness,” and that is important for understanding how a particular humulone will react with another substance. If they are paired correctly, they will fit together like a nut and bolt. If paired incorrectly, they might not fit together at all or it could be like placing a right hand into a left-handed glove. That could produce disastrous results in pharmaceuticals.

To determine the configuration of humulones formed in the brewing process, the researchers recovered acids from the brewing process and purified them. They converted the humulones to salt crystals and then used the X-ray crystallography to determine the exact configuration of the molecules. From there, they can determine which molecule is associated with each bitterness taste in beer.

The authors point out that while “excessive beer consumption cannot be recommended to propagate good health, isolated humulones and their derivatives can be prescribed with documented health benefits.” The new research sets the stage for finding which of the humulones might be useful in new compounds to be used as medical treatments.