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What to Eat with Your Burger? Scientist in the Spotlight

Sabrina Trudo, PhD, RDInterested in diet and cancer prevention, Sabrina Trudo, PhD, RD, Associate Professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota, is a nutritional scientist and recent AICR grantee. Her research on how vegetables affect carcinogens may someday help with meal planning.

Q: What is the general focus of your research on nutrition and cancer prevention?

A: At the 40,000 foot level, I’m interested in whether certain plant foods can improve cancer risk by affecting the way the body metabolizes carcinogens. Our research focuses on improving the body’s defense mechanisms in order to help the body get rid of carcinogens. I am looking at very early stages of the cancer process, before DNA damage and disease has occurred.

I’m interested in plant foods that, because of their unique profile of phytochemicals, can make the most out of the body's detoxifying enzymes that make carcinogens less reactive and dangerous. I am looking at carcinogens formed from cooking red meat at high temperatures, which generates compounds called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs.

Q: Can you describe your recently funded AICR study?

A: In my AICR study, we are exploring the intake of vegetables on HCAs. I will have participants eat four different meals. One is a control meal of well-done cooked meat. Another will include well-done cooked meat with a serving of vegetables from the broccoli family. Another will include well-done cooked meat with a serving of vegetables from the carrot family. The final meal will include well-done cooked meat with a serving from both families of vegetables [broccoli and carrots]. 

Q: Why broccoli and carrots?

A: Both broccoli and carrots each have their own unique profile of phytochemicals that affect HCAs in different ways. Evidence suggests that compounds in the cruciferous vegetables, like phenethyl isothiocyanate and indole-3-carbinol, may increase the activity of the body's enzymes that convert HCAs into safer compounds. Some of the compounds naturally occurring in the carrot family of vegetables inhibit enzymes that activate HCAs into compounds that are more toxic.

Other compounds in vegetables such as celery and parsnips may inhibit the body's enzymes that convert HCAs into more toxic compounds. I’m curious whether combining the vegetables will have an additive or synergistic effect on converting the HCAs into safer compounds. Since people tend not to eat broccoli or the same vegetable every day, I’m particularly interested in the net effects from a single meal.

Q: How do you see this research moving forward?

A:  The study is a pilot of 30 men and women, and we are very interested in doing a follow-up study that examines the potential impact of genetic differences. There could be a subset of people who respond differently to the phytochemicals and I’d like to explore those differences. I’d also like to go back to an animal model to tease things out and help connect the dots. We can never measure exactly what we want to in humans. We have to make inferences. There are HCAs that are colon specific, so we go back to animal models of colon carcinogenesis to make comparisons. 

Q: How did you become interested in food science research?

A: I worked as a full-time dietitian for five years in a county health care system in both hospital and outpatient settings. I heard a lot of the same questions from clients, such as: What if I took this herbal supplement? During these years, I also worked with resident physicians. They had a lot of questions concerning severe and complex patient cases. When I would look up information, I realized there was a lack of solid research. There’s a lot we know, but there’s also a lot we don’t know. This led me to graduate school and a career in nutritional science. In addition to doing research, my passion is teaching.

Excerpted from AICR's ScienceNow.

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