Have you ever picked up a cold, frosty beer on a hot summer's day and thought that it simply couldn't get any better?
Well, you may have to think again.
A team of researchers at Rice University in Houston is working to create a beer that could fight cancer and heart disease. Taylor Stevenson, a member of the six-student research team and a junior at Rice, said the team is using genetic engineering to create a beer that includes resveratrol, the disease-fighting chemical that's been found in red wine.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin in June had called resveratrol, a natural component of grapes, pomegranates and red wine, a key reason for the so-called French Paradox - that French people have lower rates of heart disease despite a cuisine known for its cream sauces and decadent cheeses, all loaded with heart-clogging saturated fats.
The Wisconsin researchers had noted that adding small doses of resveratrol to the diet of middle-aged mice significantly slows their aging and keeps their hearts healthy. And they added that giving high doses to invertebrates staves off premature death in mice fed a high-fat diet.
Stevenson said that Rice research group, most of whom aren't old enough to legally drink alcoholic beverages, came up with the idea of adding resveratrol to beer during a casual conversation about potential projects to undertake. "The idea is that it may have greater effects [in beer than in wine]," he added. "The amount of red wine you'd need to drink to get the same results they get with rats in labs is about half a bottle a day."
He explained that the amount of resveratrol in varies in different bottles of wine, as it depends on growing conditions for the grapes and other variables. The researchers felt they could design a beer with higher, and consistent concentrations of the cancer-fighting chemical.
The students, using their own Dell, Lenovo ThinkPad and Gateway laptops, are now in the process of developing a genetically modified strain of yeast that will ferment beer and produce resveratrol at the same time. Stevenson said that as the research advances, the team will need to use one of Rice University 's computer grids to run compute-heavy genetic models.
The Rice effort is the latest in a series of projects that use technology to find cures to major health concerns like cancer and heart disease.
In August, scientists at Stanford University in California announced that they have found a way to use nanotechnology to have chemotherapy drugs target only cancer cells , keeping healthy tissue safe from the treatment's toxic effects.
And in July, university researchers at the University of California, San Diego reported that they had discovered a way to use nanotechnology-based "smart bombs " to streamline lower doses of chemotherapy to cancerous tumours, cutting down on the cancer's ability to spread throughout the body.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin announced in May that they had developed a silicon chip that they say can more quickly and accurately diagnose heart attacks.
Stevenson noted that the lab strains of yeast the team used initially certainly wouldn't produce a tasty beer. The taste issue is why the team this summer turned to the Saint Arnold Brewing, a craft brewery in Houston, for some good beer-making yeast to use. In general, the addition of the resveratrol shouldn't affect the taste of the beer since the chemical is odorless and tasteless, he said.
"We're now putting these genes into the yeast," he added. "We're fairly confident it will work because all the components have worked separately."
Stevenson said the modified yeast strain could one day be sold to breweries where beverage companies could make their own disease-fighting beer. He noted that the research and development phase of the effort could take five years.
The research team is looking to enter their BioBeer in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition next month in Cambridge, Mass.