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New studies on foods and activity for cancer prevention and survival

How does folate, walnuts, or vitamin D affect your cancer risk? Can a ketogenic diet or a certain types of foods help survivors? With AICR support, scientists from around the country are now working to answer these questions.

In no particular order, here are the researchers and the studies they are starting this year.

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Emily Smith Tonorezos, MD, MPH
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Investigating a diet for childhood cancer survivors

Long-term survivors of childhood leukemia face increased risk of obesity and insulin resistance, conditions that lead to serious health disorders.

Now, Tonorezos is looking to understand how diet may play a role. Her study will compare diet, eating behaviors and activty of long-term ALL survivors to their non-cancer siblings. Dietary fat, says Tonorezos, may be extremely important to this population.

"Diet and physical activity recommendations that are specific to adult survivors of childhood leukemia would be tremendously helpful. Right now, this is a population that is suffering from the late effects of their treatment but is not sure how to move forward," said Tonorezos.

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Robert Chapkin, PhD
Texas A&M University

Fish oil, fiber and colonic stem cells

It has been unequivocally shown that crypt stem cells are the cells-of-origin of intestinal cancer, states Chapkin. The question, he says, is whether these cells are impacted by diet.

Earlier lab studies by Chapkin unexpectedly found that the chemoprotective effect of fish oil increased when the fermentable fiber pectin was added. In this lab study, Chapkin will see how the interaction of dietary fat and fiber affect intestinal stem cell biology and metabolism.

"We have hypothesized that fish oil (containing n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) and pectin act synergistically to suppress stem cell DNA damage and metabolic alterations induced by carcinogen," says Chapkin.

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James DeGregori, PhD
University of Colorado Denver

Low and high-folate diets, stem cells and cancer

The B vitamin folate plays a key role in healthy DNA, yet preliminary research suggests that low-folate diets and too much folate supplementation increase risk of some cancers.

Using a mouse model for leukemia, DeGregori will delve into a novel hypothesis to explain this paradox: too little folate and too much folic acid negatively affect blood stem cells, thereby increasing the ability for cancer cell growth.

Both folate conditions "may be associated with more cancers because these conditions lead to selection for cancer-causing mutations that correct the RNA/DNA precursor deficiency," said DeGregori.

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David Christiani, MD
Harvard University

Vitamin D and esophageal cancer survivors

Obesity is a clear risk factor for esophageal cancer. Other research suggests that Vitamin D levels and variations in vitamin D metabolizing genes increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Yet the association of all these factors with esophageal survival remains unknown, says Christiani. "Vitamin D has a number of properties that may be beneficial in survival, like inhibiting metastases. Moreover, vitamin D levels are determined, in part, by genetic variations in the vitamin D receptor genes," he says.

Christiani will look at DNA, serum vitamin D and other data from approximately 700 esophageal cancer patients. The findings will hopefully provide data on how multiple factors affect survival, says Christiani.

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Piyali Dasgupta, PhD
Marshall University

Can pepper's capsaicin inhibit lung cancer metastasis?

Capsaicin is the phytochemical that gives chili peppers their kick, and it is well-studied in cancer prevention.

In cell studies, Dasgupta found that the capsaicin inhibits lung cancer cells' ability to move and migrate. Now, Dasgupta is conducting an animal study to test the hypothesis on small cell lung cancer (SCLC), which has a poor survival rate.

"Investigation of novel treatment strategies aimed at inhibiting SCLC metastasis are urgently needed.... We hope that capsaicin may be used in combination with standard chemotherapeutic drugs to improve health outcomes of human SCLC patients,” says Dasgupta.

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Louise Fong, PhD
Thomas Jefferson University

Understanding zinc's role in oral cancers

In rats, zinc deficiency alters gene expression and promotes cancer development; conditions reversed by zinc replenishment, says Fong. A zinc deficient diet may affect the p53 gene, a tumor suppressor gene. The loss of this gene plays a central role in cancer cell growth.

In this study, Fong is using a mouse model without the p53 gene to investigate the role of zinc in oral-esophageal cancers.

Because both zinc deficiency and a loss of function of p53 are associated with human oral-esophageal cancer... "this will provide an opportunity to investigate the mechanism of pathogenesis as well as to formulate preventive and therapeutic strategies," said Fong.

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William L. Redmond, PhD
Providence Portland Medical Center

How a vitamin E supplement may destroy cancer cells

Autophagy is a process where cells degrade themselves; stopping this process is one way cancer cells stay alive.

Lab studies by Redmond have shown that by a supplement derived from vitamin E kills cancer cells and induces tumor cell death by autophagy. The supplement, abbreviated a-TEA, did not appear to harm the animal.

In the lab study, Redmond is working to better understand how a-TEA can cause autophagy, and how it alerts the immune system to attack the cancer. "We hope that our study will provide insight into how a-TEA stimulates the immune response and the effects of combining a-TEA with immune-modulating drugs to boost anti-tumor immunity," he says.

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Kenneth A. Schwartz, MD
Michigan State University

Can a ketogenic diet manage brain tumors?

In rodents, there's strong data showing that a ketogenic diet can control certain tumors. The high fat, low carbohydrate ketogenic diet exploits the idea that cancer cells cannot use ketones for fuel, but healthy cells can. Schwartz will now test the ketogenic diet on a small group of individuals with glioblastoma – an aggressive and deadly brain cancer.

The 10 patients have finished their conventional treatment. Patients will maintain a low-calorie ketogenic diet for 12 weeks, followed closely for changes in glucose metabolism, ketones, tumor size and other specific end points.

We hope for positive outcomes but we just don't know, says Schwartz. "This is the first protocol study that's ever been done like this."

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Daniel W. Rosenberg, PhD
University of Connecticut Health Center

Walnuts and colon cancer prevention

Walnuts contain many compounds well-studied for cancer prevention, such as ellagic acid and antioxidant polyphenols.

Using mice, Rosenberg is investigating if consuming walnuts can suppress the development of colon tumors that are driven by inflammation. His study is also testing if walnuts will inhibit the formation of abnormal growths – aberrant crypt foci – that may lead to colon cancer decades later.

Study animals will consume walnuts, says Rosenberg, because he hypothesizes "its the special combination of the many different agents within the walnuts that are most important."

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More on Research in Cancer Prevention

Keep checking back for more information on the outcomes of these studies and the overall research in the field. To read more about the research related to diet, activity, weight and cancer prevention, visit:

Foods that Fight Cancer

Learn More about Cancer: By Site

Making Sense of the Science

Published on January 23, 2014

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