March 3, 2010
You’ve probably heard about the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in protecting your heart and boosting your mood, but now there’s another do-good effect to add to the list: a lower risk of colorectal cancer. Researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities tracked 500 men for 22 years as part of the Physicians’ Health Study and found that men who ate the most fish—at least five times a week—had a 40 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer than those who dined on seafood less than once a week. Those who picked fish with the highest levels of omega-3s had a 26 percent lower risk than those who ate the least. Researchers think omega-3s may inhibit enzymes and the production of pro-inflammatory compounds that may play a role in the development of cancer. So choose fish rich in omega-3s, such as salmon or mackerel, and make it a regular main course—or add sardines to your salad.
Research Grant in Action
As if helping a cancer prevention scientist establish his career weren’t enough, one Prevent Cancer Foundation fellowship grant awarded in 2004 has also laid the groundwork for a breakthrough in colorectal and pancreatic cancer screening. Dr. Young L. Kim was a biomedical engineering researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, when he won the award. “The fellowship provided initial support to become an independent researcher during my first year of postdoctoral training,” Dr. Kim says. “It was emotional and financial encouragement for me to pursue an academic career.”
And his career has flourished. At Northwestern, Dr. Kim used the grant money to work closely with his mentor, Dr. Vadim Backman, a biomedical engineering professor, to develop light-scattering technology that may lead to the next generation of colorectal cancer screenings—optical, colonoscopy-free procedures. Drs. Backman, Kim, and others in the lab then repur- posed the technology to detect pancreatic cancer. Currently, doctors have no way to screen populations to detect it early, Dr. Backman explains. Biopsies and other available methods are simply too invasive and have an unacceptably high rate of complications. As a result, pancreatic cancer’sfive-year survival rate is a dismal 3 percent.
The research team, however, was able to use its optical tools to predict pancreatic cancer presence without disturbing the organ. In fact, they didn’t even touch it. The light-scattering technology allowed them to examine small-intestine tissue adjacent to the pancreas, and from that they could determine whether the pancreas was cancerous. Findings such as these, reported in Clinical Cancer Research last year, could lead to earlier cancer detection and save many lives. Meanwhile, Dr. Young L. Kim is continu- ing his exciting career at Purdue University as a tenure-track assistant professor. Still focused on early detection technology, he’s currently experimenting with new imaging techniques to spot lung cancer in its earliest stage.
Is Wine Really Fine?
Health-conscious consumers have had plenty of occasions to raise a glass as study after study touts the virtues of red wine. A glass a day, the International Journal of Cancer reported in 2004, may cut the risk of prostate cancer in half. Protection from breast, colorectal, and lung cancers was also anticipated. But such re- ports proved premature. While red wine’s antioxidants continue to benefit heart health and aging, recent reports regard- ing cancer are decidedly more sobering. Heavy drinking has been known to contribute to liver and colon cancer, among others. But last spring, the National Cancer Institute announced that a drink or two a day—regardless of the type of alcohol—ups breast cancer risk by 32 percent. And Australia’s Cancer Institute NSW reported that two drinks a day may raise larynx cancer risk by 40 percent, esophageal cancer by 50 percent, and oral cancer by 75 percent.
Not all the booze news has been bad, though. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, some people have a gene variation that actually protects against alcohol-related cancers. The more they drink, the more protection they get. Doctors warn, however, that only a small percentage of the population carries the genes and even the lucky few have a higher cancer risk than if they didn’t drink at all.
An Even Dirtier Habit
Another reason to ditch the cigarettes and encourage friends and family to quit: A review of 14 studies published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that the connection between secondhand smoke and breast cancer is even stronger than evidence linking it to lung cancer. Seventy-one percent of studies showed an association between exposure to smoke and risk of breast cancer, and some revealed a 2.19-fold higher risk, especially for younger, premenopausal women. The review’s authors say that these studies, conducted in 2005, provide a stronger link to cancer than did the six of 13 studies reviewed by the U.S. Surgeon General for the lung cancer connection made in 1986. The review came after the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board added tobacco smoke, passive smoking, involuntary smoking, and environmental tobacco smoke to the state’s list of “toxic air contaminants” and cited breast cancer as a new addition to the list of diseases caused by secondhand smoke.