Antioxidants Accelerate Lung Cancer in Mice

February 04, 2014
Antioxidants Accelerate Lung Cancer In Mice
Reference:  Science Translational Medicine  

It was a huge disappointment in the 1990s when we found that Vitamin E and A seemed to increase the rate of cancer growth in smokers.  Millions of Americans had been taking those two anti-oxidants, and then stopped!  Why would something so seemingly beneficial cause harm?   Until now, no-one has followed up on these observations and tried to nail down the reasons. 

That’s what this Swedish team did in this study.  Back to the drawing board with mice with a study that investigates just why antioxidants accelerate lung cancer. What do anti-oxidants do?  Our body is constantly generating “reactive oxygen species”, or ROS.  These come from eating high sugar-containing foods, or smoking, or eating grilled meats…many causes.  But ROS damage cellular structures all over your body.  We have all sorts of internal mechanisms that generate our own natural anti-oxidants to protect us.  It seems only natural that taking a little extra would help protect us even more, especially considering that those compounds themselves protect us naturally when in normal proportions.

 What Martin Bergo’s team found was that Vitamin E and N-acetyl cysteine did extinguish ROS in normal cells and in cancer cells.  Cancer cells were found to have low levels of ROS, and these two anti-oxidants lowered them even further.  And then something interesting happened.  Using doses that would mimic what happens to humans taking a vitamin pill, the anti-oxidants protected the cancer cells from DNA damage.  That allowed the cancer cells to then grow faster, larger and to kill their hosts even faster.  Hmmm. 

 And inside the study, they also found that the anti-oxidants dramatically reduced the activity of p53, a guardian protein that prevents cancer by dectecting damaged DNA and slowing down cell division. Fair enough.  This explains what we have observed in humans.  From the New England Journal Article back in 1994 on Vitamin E to the Cochrane Review in 2012 that review 78 studies in humans, anti-oxidants have not been shown to improve survival in humans. 

The suppression of that p53 gene is real and may be the key.  It is typically suppressed in late-stage cancer when cancer really takes off.  Anti-oxidants suppressing that gene may be the key to why this happens. There still may be a rational explanation we haven’t parsed out yet.  There are 8 Vitamin Es – to take one, alpha-tocopherol, and give it in high doses excludes the others.  Most foods contain many of them.  Same thing with Vitamin A.  There are lots of carotenoids.  Whole foods contain them all, not one in isolation.  And they have been proven to be vital for many biological functions.   What’s a caring, thoughtful, health conscious person to do?

 WWW. What will work for me?  Science is messy.   If I were at high risk for cancer, I would not take Vit E or A.  I may very likely have a small cancer and taking these supplements might accelerate those diseases.  Cancer is not normal humans though.  If I’m low risk for lung cancer (non-smoker) the story may still have more chapters to go.  I’m still not taking extra E or A.

Pop Quiz

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1.   Vitamin E, in normal supplement doses, accelerates the speed of implanted lung cancer in mice.  T or F                      Answer:  Yup. That’s what this study shows.
2.  The p53 gene helps protect normal cells from cancers, but in cancer cells seems to be suppressed and allows the cancer cell to take off and grow faster.         T or F                       Answer:   True
 3.   Our bodies have natural systems that neutralize reactive oxygen species.  T or  F                          Answer:  True.
 4.  So explain why taking extra anti-oxidants  makes you worse off!                        Answer:   Can’t.  Have to wait for more science.  It’s utterly confounding. Suggest you eat whole food, grown locally with the least amount of chemicals you can find.

Column written by Dr John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.