Many people take vitamin or antioxidant supplements in the hope that these will improve their chances of surviving cancer. The early views of the benefits of such supplements for cancer sufferers were inconclusive. Now there is growing scientific evidence that such supplements, rather than helping us to fight cancer, actually help the cancer cells to become malignant.
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Research published this week in the respected scientific journal Nature describes how the condition of ‘oxidative stress‘ prevents cancer cells from metastasising. This is the condition where they break off from the original tumour and move to other parts of the body to cause new tumorous growths – in other words the cancer becomes malignant. This oxidative stress can be overcome through the application of antioxidants like those used in body-building and vitamin supplements.
This research therefore strongly reinforces the view that antioxidant and vitamin supplements can actually promote the development of malignant tumours. Until now such supplements have actually been prescribed to cancer patients in the belief that they can help the body in its defence against cancer. If these research results are confirmed physicians will need to reassess the use of such supplements in the therapy of cancer and other diseases like HIV. Likewise the everyday use of vitamin and antioxidant supplements by millions of people in the hope that they improve health may be wrong. For those of us already benefiting from a normal healthy diet such supplements may actually be doing more harm than good.
As with all health related research it is important to duplicate the results and ensure they are applicable in all relevant circumstances. However the team around Sean Morrison, director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is well respected. He explained “The idea that antioxidants are good for you has been so strong that there have been clinical trials done in which cancer patients were administered antioxidants….. Some of those trials had to be stopped because the patients getting the antioxidants were dying faster. Our data suggest the reason for this: cancer cells benefit more from antioxidants than normal cells do.”
The studies were conducted in specialized mice that had been transplanted with melanoma (skin cancer) cells from patients. Earlier studies have shown that the metastasis of melanoma cells in these mice is predictive of their metastasis in human patients. Metastasis, the process by which cancer cells spread from their initial site to other regions in the body, leads to the death of most cancer patients. Sean Morrison’s team found that when antioxidants were administered to the mice, the cancer spread more quickly than in mice that did not get antioxidants.
The Texas research now needs to be tested in people, however the team has already suggested that cancer should be treated with additives that promote oxidation (pro-oxidants rather than antioxidants) and that cancer patients should refrain from supplementing their diet with large doses of antioxidants (more details available in the original article in Nature using the link here).
Clearly more research needs to be carried out in this area but this is not the first time that the benefits of supplements have been questioned. In 2012 E.E. Martinez and co-workers at Vanderbilt University performing large-scale cancer prevention trials with Selenium (antioxidant) and Vitamin E showed that the antioxidants failed to prevent, and in some cases promoted, prostate cancer formation in men without a history of the disease (more details in their original publication here).
Similarly in 2014 Martin Bergo and coworkers published research results showing that antioxidants (Vitamin E and N-acetycysteine) accelerated lung cancer in mice. Using doses similar to those found in human multivitamin pills they found that those mice that had ingested the antioxidants developed tumours that were three times bigger than control mice and they died twice as fast (more details of this Gothenburg University Team’s research in their original publication here).
Clearly these findings will not be greeted enthusiastically by those drugs companies that have been encouraging millions of customers to prophylactically take multivitamin and antioxidant suppliments. However, as the body of scientific evidence builds, the future of such supplements may be questionable. One thing however has not changed by this research – a balanced diet including all the natural vitamins and elements provided by unprocessed natural foods is still best health option on offer (and take it from me – it can be cheap!).
Chris Duggleby started his scientific career studying Bacteriology, Virology and Immunology at the Manchester University Medical School. From there he went on to spend over 35 in the chemicals and oil industries which included setting up a polymers research and development group in Geneva, Switzerland for a major international chemicals company. Following an MBA from Warwick University he went on to lead a number of international manufacturing and marketing operations in the Chemicals, Plastics and Oil industries. His work involved living and working in Europe, Asia, the USA, the Middle East, and Russia. More recently he was invited to take on a senior leadership position in the Audit Department of the BP International Oil Group. Here he used his global change and risk management experience to help the group reshape its management structures and processes following a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He has now retired to focus on writing about risk management and producing music in his studios near London, in the Alps and Cape Town. If you are interested in risk management check out his RiskTuition.com or BizChangers.com (management of change) sites.
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