Certain foods may assist spread of breast cancer

Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Researchers from Cambridge have come up with a new study that shows that some foods may influence the spread of certain cancers. Asparagine for example is a nutrient present in asparagus. If this nutrient is absent, the growth of breast cancer can be slowed, they note. The results of the study are published in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

Image Credit Swapan Photography / Shutterstock
Image Credit Swapan Photography / Shutterstock

They team noted that Asparagine, an amino acid is vital for the growth of breast cancer. Poultry and several other sea foods are also associated with breast cancer growth because they have high levels of asparagine, they noted. For this study, the team conducted their animal study at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute on mice with an aggressive form of triple-negative breast cancer. In usual cases the mice had only a couple of weeks to live as the cancer would spread to major organs. Some of these mice were then fed on a diet low on asparagines. They were also tried with drugs to block asparagine. Now their tumors were seen to have a significantly slower rate of spread across the body and this, in turn, prolonged lives of the mice.

Prof Greg Hannon, lead researchers, said that this was a “difficult” find and a really “huge” and significant change. There has been an earlier study published last year that showed that the amino acids glycine and serine were important for the development and spread of lymphomas and intestinal cancers. Professor Hannon said that their studies show that some cancers are “addicted” to some amino acids or parts of our diets specifically. Altering the diet to fit in the cancer profile could thus help reduce the spread of the cancer and its growth, he explained. Simon Knott, associate director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, one of the first authors of the study said that this study adds to a growing body of evidence that diet can affect the course of a disease.

Death from cancers is usually due to the spread of the cancer to other major organs or metastasis of the cancer to lungs, brain, bones, liver etc. Reducing the asparagines did not affect the main tumor in any way but stopped the cancer from spreading. Prof Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician added that there is a drug called L-asparaginase works on asparagine. This drug is being used routinely to treat acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. This drug may also be tried in breast cancer patients he said if proven in future clinical trials.

Experts in the field including Baroness Delyth Morgan, the chief executive at Breast Cancer Now have added that this study is still preliminary and should not prompt breast cancer patients to go on drastic diets without medical advice. Foods that contain high amounts of asparagines include poultry meat and eggs, dairy, whey, beef, fish, sea foods. It is also found in asparagus, legumes, potatoes, soy, whole grains and seeds. Fruits and vegetables usually are low on asparagines compared to animal products.

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