Healed by beer? Czech scientists are working on hops that can combat cancer

Beneficial compounds are already present in hops, and their levels can be increased with new methods of manipulating genes.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 29.01.2021 11:11 (updated on 29.01.2021)

Czech researchers from the Biological Center of the Czech Academy of Sciences in České Budějovice are modifying select genes in hops so they help the human body combat cancer, inflammation, and bacteria. But current EU rules will make it hard to bring their results to the market.

Scientists at the Biological Center began to modify hops using CRISPR technology for gene splicing. The CRISPR method is less intrusive than previous gene modification techniques, and focuses on modifying single genes. Hops are one of the main ingredients in beer.

The  scientists’ first target was the gene for an enzyme that regulates the production of leaf dyes. When switched off, the leaves turn white. The experiment was a success, and the plants’ leaves turned completely white or mosaic green-white.

The results were just published in the international scientific journal Plant Physiology and Biochemistry. The main author of the study is Praveen Awasthi, who has already used CRISPR technology on the banana tree.

“I am pleased that we have been able to establish this methodology for hops, where it is also a bit complicated by the fact that it is a vegetatively propagated crop,” Awasthi said.

The team will now focus on changing genes responsible for the production of bitter acids, which will improve beer quality in brewing. They will also focus on the production of prenylated flavonoids, a group of chemical compounds that act against cancer, bacteria, and inflammation, according to a summary on the Czech Academy of Sciences website. These compounds are already naturally present but in small quantities.

The beneficial compounds from hops have already caught the interest of the pharmaceutical industry, and can be used as an active ingredient in medicines, team member Tomáš Kocábek said, according to Aktualne.cz.

For some beneficial substances, such as xanthohumol, scientists have managed to increase their presence in hops from a few tenths of percent to 2 percent. Xanthohumol is being examined by other scientists for its potential use in preventing cancer.

But people shouldn’t use beer now as a health treatment, Kocábek said. The beneficial chemical compounds are is such small quantities that the benefits are far outweighed by alcohol’s negative effects.

Awasthi makes a distinction between organisms modified with CRISPR technology and GMOs, since unlike with GMOs, foreign genes don’t have to be introduced into the modified organism.

“CRISPR is a completely universal system for everything alive, from microorganisms to human cells, and will certainly bring a lot of interesting results in the future, since it enables [us] to target precisely specific genes without interfering with other parts of the genome,” Awasthi said.

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So far, everything has been taking place in laboratories. The end results won’t reach consumers unless the European Union changes the rules that make it practically impossible for commercial uses of organisms that have been modified with CRISPR. The European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that CRISPR-treated organisms are GMOs, and subject to the European Union’s existing GMO rules.

In 2019, the Biological Center of the Academy of Sciences joined other European scientists to ask the European Parliament and the European Commission to change the regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).