Treating Pancreatic Cancer with Turmeric Curcumin

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Pancreatic cancer is among the most aggressive forms of human cancer, characterized by a very high mortality rate. It represents the fourth leading cause of cancer death in United States, killing 32,000 people annually. With a five-year survival rate of only three percent and a median survival rate of less than six months, pancreatic cancer carries one of the poorest prognoses. The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is one of the worst things a doctor ever has to tell a patient. The only FDA-approved therapies for it, Gemcitabine and Erlotinib, produce objective responses in less than ten percent of patients, while causing severe side-effects in the majority. There is a desperate need for new options.

Clinical research to test new treatments is split into phases. Phase I trials are just to make sure the treatment is safe, to see how much you can give before it becomes toxic. Curcumin, the natural yellow pigment in the spice turmeric has passed a number of those. In fact, there was so little toxicity, the dosing appeared limited only by the number of pills patients were willing to swallow.

Phase II trials are conducted to see if the drug actually has an effect. Curcumin did, in 2 of the 21 patients that were evaluated. One patient had a 73 percent tumor reduction, but the effect was short-lived. One lesion remained small, but a curcumin-resistant tumor clone emerged. The other patient, who had a stable disease for over 18 months, showed slow improvement over a year. The only time that patient's cancer markers bumped up was during a brief three-week stint where the curcumin was stopped.

So curcumin does seem to help some patients with pancreatic cancer, and most importantly, there appears to be little downside. No curcumin-related toxic effects were observed in up to doses of eight grams per day. What happens after eight grams? We don't know because no one was willing to take that many pills. The patients were willing to go on one of the nastiest chemotherapy regimens on the planet, but didn't want to be inconvenienced with swallowing a lot of capsules.

The only surefire way to beat pancreatic cancer is to prevent it in the first place. In 2010 I profiled a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the largest such study in history, which found that dietary fat of animal origin was associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk.

Which animal fat is the worst? The second largest study (highlighted in my video: Turmeric Curcumin and Pancreatic Cancer) has since chimed in to help answer that question. Researchers found that poultry was the worst, with 72 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer associated with every 50 grams of daily poultry consumption. Fifty grams is just about a quarter of a chicken breast. The reason white meat came out worse than red may be because of the cooked meat carcinogens in chicken, the heterocyclic amines that build up in grilled and baked chicken. These mutagenic chemicals have been associated with a doubling of pancreatic cancer risk (See Estrogenic Cooked Meat Carcinogens).

Meat has been associated with significantly increased risk, whereas fake meat is associated with significantly less risk. Those who eat plant-based meats like veggie burgers or veggie dogs three or more times a week had less than half the risk of fatal pancreatic cancer. Legumes and dried fruit appear to be similarly protective.

My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. By the time the first symptom arose, a dull ache in his gut, it was too late. That's why we need to work on preventing it.

I previously touched on pancreatic cancer prevention in Poultry Exposure Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer and attempts at pancreatic cancer treatment in Gerson Therapy for Cancer and Gerson-style Therapy vs. Chemotherapy.

For more on the heterocyclic amine cooked meat carcinogens:

I've done a bunch of videos on turmeric and various cancers:

And more on this amazing spice (and more to come):

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Sara Marlowe / Flickr

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Which Nut Suppresses Cancer Cell Growth the Most?

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People who eat nuts in their adolescence may have a better chance of fighting off breast cancer later in life, according to data from the Harvard Nurse's Study. A follow-up study involving the daughters of the nurses corroborated the findings. Those eating more peanut butter, nuts, beans, lentils, soybeans, or corn were found to have just a fraction of the risk for fibrocystic breast disease, which places one at higher risk of cancer. The protective effects were found to be strongest for those most at risk, such as those with a family history of breast cancer.

Another study out of the British Journal of Cancer found that even two handfuls of nuts a week may protect against pancreatic cancer, one of our most fatal malignancies.

Nuts are described as "nutritionally precious," which may explain some of the mechanisms by which nut components induce cancer cell death and inhibit cancer growth and spread in vitro. But which nuts work the best? In my video #1 Anticancer Vegetable, we learned that two classes of vegetables--the broccoli family vegetables and the garlic family vegetables--most effectively suppressed breast cancer cell growth. In Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?, cranberries and lemons took the title.

What about nuts? In terms of antioxidant content, walnuts and pecans steal the show. Twenty-five walnuts have the antioxidant equivalent of eight grams of vitamin C (the vitamin C found in a hundred oranges).

But how do they do against cancer? In the video, Which Nut Fights Cancer Better?, you can see a graph of human cancer cell proliferation versus increasing concentrations of the ten most common nuts eaten in the United States. If you drip water on these cancer cells as a control, nothing happens. Hazelnuts, pistachios and Brazil nuts don't do much better. Pine nuts, cashews and macadamias start pulling away from the pack. Almonds appear twice as protective, halving cancer cell growth at only half the dose as pine nuts, cashews, and macadamias. Walnuts, pecans, and peanuts come out as the clear winners, causing a dramatic drop in cancer proliferation at just tiny doses.

More nuttiness:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Mariya Chorna / Flickr

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Why Deep Fried Foods May Cause Cancer

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In the latest study on dietary patterns and breast cancer risk among women, healthier eating was associated with eliminating three-quarters of the odds of breast cancer, whereas less healthy eating was associated with up to nearly eight times the odds. Included in the unhealthy eating pattern was the consumption of deep-fried foods, which have previously been linked to breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, oral and throat cancers, esophageal cancer, and cancer of the voicebox. No deep fried foods? What's a Southern belle to do? Instead of deep fried foods, how about the traditional Southern diet, characterized by high intakes of cooked greens, beans, legumes, cabbage, sweet potatoes and cornbread, which may reduce the risk of invasive breast cancer significantly.

What about the consumption of deep-fried foods and risk of prostate cancer? Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington found that eating French fries, fried chicken, fried fish, and doughnuts was associated with about a third greater odds of prostate cancer. After stratifying for tumor aggressiveness, they found slightly stronger associations with more aggressive disease, suggesting that regular intake of deep-fried foods may contribute to the progression of prostate cancer as well.

What in deep fried foods is so bad for us? Just heating oil that hot can generate potentially carcinogenic compounds, and then known carcinogens such as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons form when the muscles of chickens and fish are cooked at that temperature. Deep-fried plants, on the other hand, can form acrylamide.

I did a video about acrylamide back in 2008, suggesting it's a probable human carcinogen (See Acrylamide in French Fries). Since then, studies have suggested pregnant women may want to cut back on French fries to protect the growth of their baby's body and brain. Based on a study (highlighted in my video, Cancer Risk from French Fries) feeding people a little bag of potato chips every day for a month, it now seems acrylamide may also cause inflammation as well, which could explain its purported role in cancer progression.

Acrylamide intake has been associated with endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, and esophageal cancer. How much cancer risk are we talking about? Taiwanese researchers examined lifetime cancer risk and French fry consumption. The researchers picked on French fries because they comprise by far the greatest percentage contribution of acrylamide to the diets of children. They estimated that, at most, one or two boys and girls out of every ten thousand would develop cancer eating French fries that they would otherwise not have developed if they hadn't eaten French fries. So it's not as bad as eating something like fried fish, or fried chicken, but how much is that saying?

The level of cancer risk in both boys and girls associated with French fries depends on how long and hot they're fried. In Europe, the food industry swore that they'd self-regulate and control fry times to decrease acrylamide levels, but we've yet to see any subsequent change in acrylamide levels in French fries.

Researchers continue to urge that the cooking temperature should be as low as possible and the cooking time should be as short as possible, "while still maintaining a tasty quality" of course. We wouldn't want to reduce cancer risk too much--they might not taste as good!

Blanching the potatoes first reduces acrylamide formation, but potato chip companies complain that, not only would it muck with the flavor, but it would reduce the nutritional properties by leaching away some of the vitamin C. But if we're relying on potato chips to get our vitamin C, acrylamide is probably the least of our worries.

More on heterocyclic amines:

There are some things we can do to counteract the effects of these carcinogens, though:

I touch on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Meat Fumes: Dietary Secondhand Smoke and Is Liquid Smoke Flavoring Carcinogenic?
Certain fats may play a role in breast cancer survival as well: Breast Cancer Survival, Butterfat, and Chicken and Breast Cancer Survival and Trans Fat.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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How Phytates Fight Cancer Cells

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Phytate is a compound found in beans, grains, nuts and seeds. The average daily intake of phytate in vegetarian diets is about twice that of those eating mixed diets of plant and animal foods, which may help explain their low cancer rates. Aside from helping to prevent cancer, dietary phytate has been reported to help prevent kidney stone formation, protect against diabetes mellitus, dental cavities, and heart disease.

Do all these potentially beneficial effects sound too good to be true? Are there other examples of compounds made by plants that can have benefits across multiple diseases? Why yes! Aspirin, for example, which is found throughout the plant kingdom may also account for a variety of plant-based benefits (See Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods).

But of all the things phytates can do, the anticancer activity of phytate (also known as phytic acid, IP6, or inositol hexaphosphate), is considered one of its most important beneficial activities. Dietary phytates are quickly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and rapidly taken up by cancer cells throughout the body, and have been shown to inhibit the growth of all tested cancerous cell lines in vitro. Phytates have been shown to inhibit the growth of human leukemia cells, colon cancer cells, both estrogen receptor-positive and negative breast cancer cells, voicebox cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, liver tumors, pancreatic, melanoma, and muscle cancers. All at the same time not affecting normal cells. That's the most important expectation of a good anticancer agent: the ability to only affect cancerous cells and to leave normal cells alone.

In my video, Phytates for Rehabilitating Cancer Cells, you can see how leukemia cells taken from cancer patients are killed by phytates, whereas normal bone marrow cells, are spared. This may explain why bean extracts kill off colon cancer cells in vitro, but leave normal colon cells alone.

What are the mechanisms of action by which phytates battle cancer? In other words, how do phytates fight? How don't they fight? Phytate targets cancer through multiple pathways, a combination of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing activities, detox, differentiation, and anti-angiogenesis. In other words, phytate appears to affect all the principal pathways of malignancy.

The antioxidative property is one of the most impressive characteristics of phytate. In fact that's why the meat industry adds phytates to meat to prevent the fat oxidation that begins at the moment of slaughter. Phytates can also act on our immune functions by augmenting natural killer cell activity, the cells in our body that hunt down and dispose of cancer cells, as well as neutrophils, which help form our first line of defense. And then phytates starve tumors as more of a last line of defense. Not only can phytates block the formation of new blood vessels that may be feeding tumors, but disrupt pre-formed capillary tubes, indicating that phytates may not just help blockade tumors, but actively cut off existing supply lines.

What's really remarkable about phytate, though, is that unlike most other anti-cancer agents, it not only causes a reduction in cancer cell growth but also enhances differentiation, meaning it causes cancer cells to stop acting like cancer cells and go back to acting like normal cells. You can see this with colon cancer cells for example. In the presence of phytates, human colon cancer cells mature to structurally and behaviorally resemble normal cells. And this has been demonstrated in leukemia cells, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and muscle cancer cells as well.

For more on the cancer and phytate connection, check out Phytates for the Prevention of Cancer and Phytates for the Treatment of Cancer.

This video reminds me of my video on the spice, turmeric, Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death.

What else can we eat to improve the cancer-fighting front of our immune system? See Boosting Natural Killer Cell Activity.

More on the concept of starving tumors of their blood supply in Anti-Angiogenesis: Cutting Off Tumor Supply Lines.

Is there clinical evidence of plants actually reversing cancer progression? You won't believe your eyes:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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Why are Cancer Rates so Low in India?

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It is estimated that many tumors start around the age of 20. However, detection of cancer is normally around the age of 50 or later. Thus, it takes cancer decades to incubate. Why does it take so long? Recent studies indicate that in any given type of cancer, hundreds of different genes must be modified to change a normal cell into a cancer cell. Although cancers are characterized by the dysregulation of cell signaling pathways at multiple steps, most current anticancer therapies involve the modulation of a single target. Chemotherapy has gotten incredibly specific, but the ineffectiveness, lack of safety, and high cost of these monotargeted therapies has led to real disappointment, and drug companies are now trying to develop chemo drugs that take a multitargeted approach.

Many plant-based products, however, accomplish multitargeting naturally and are inexpensive and safe compared to drugs. However, because drug companies are not usually able to secure intellectual property rights to plants, the development of plant-based anticancer therapies has not been prioritized. They may work (and work better for all we know), and they may be safer, or even fully risk free.

If we were going to choose one plant-based product to start testing, we might choose curcumin, the pigment in the spice turmeric (the reason curry powder looks yellow). Before we start throwing money at research, we might want to ask some basic questions, like "Do populations that eat a lot of turmeric have lower cancer rates?" The incidence of cancer does appear to be significantly lower in regions where turmeric is heavily consumed. Population-based data indicate that some extremely common cancers in the Western world are much less prevalent in regions where turmeric is widely consumed in the diet.

For example, "overall cancer rates are much lower in India than in western countries." U.S. men get 23 times more prostate cancer than men in India. Americans get between 8 and 14 times the rate of melanoma, 10 to 11 times more colorectal cancer, 9 times more endometrial cancer, 7 to 17 times more lung cancer, 7 to 8 times more bladder cancer, 5 times more breast cancer, and 9 to 12 times more kidney cancer. This is not mere 5, 10, or 20 percent more, but 5, 10, or 20 times more. Hundreds of percent more breast cancer, thousands of percent more prostate cancer--differences even greater than some of those found in the China Study.

The researchers in this study, highlighted in my video Back to Our Roots: Curry and Cancer, conclude: "Because Indians account for one-sixth of the world's population, and have some of the highest spice consumption in the world, epidemiological studies in this country have great potential for improving our understanding of the relationship between diet and cancer. The lower rates of cancer may, of course, not be due to higher spice intake. Several dietary factors may contribute to the low overall rate of cancer in India. Among them are a "relatively low intake of meat and a mostly plant-based diet, in addition to the high intake of spices." Forty percent of Indians are vegetarians, and even the ones that do eat meat don't eat a lot. And it's not only what they don't eat, but what they do. India is one of the largest producers and consumers of fresh fruits and vegetables, and Indians eat a lot of pulses (legumes), such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils. They also eat a wide variety of spices in addition to turmeric that constitute, by weight, the most antioxidant-packed class of foods in the world.

Population studies can't prove a correlation between dietary turmeric and decreased cancer risk, but they can certainly inspire a bunch of research. So far, curcumin has been tested against a variety of human cancers, including colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast, prostate, multiple myeloma, lung cancer, and head and neck cancer, for both prevention and treatment. For more information on turmeric and curcumin, check out Carcinogen Blocking Effects of Turmeric Curcumin and Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death.

I'm working on another dozen or so videos on this amazing spice. This is what I have so far:

Amla, dried Indian gooseberry powder, is another promising dietary addition:

I add amla to my Pink Juice with Green Foam recipe. Not all natural products from India are safe, though. See, for example, my video Some Ayurvedic Medicine Worse than Lead Paint Exposure.

More on the antioxidant concentration in spices in general in Antioxidants in a Pinch. Why do antioxidants matter? See Food Antioxidants and Cancer and Food Antioxidants, Stroke, and Heart Disease.

Which fruits and vegetables might be best? See #1 Anticancer Vegetable and Best Fruits for Cancer Prevention.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: peddhapati / Flickr

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Handling Poultry Tied to Liver/Pancreatic Cancers

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Thousands of Americans continue to die from asbestos exposure decades after many uses were banned since the cancers can take years to show up. We are now in the so-called "third wave" of asbestos-related disease. The first wave was in the asbestos miners, which started in the 1920s. The second phase was in the workers--the ship-builders and construction workers that used the stuff in the '30s, '40s, and '50s.

Now, as buildings "constructed with asbestos over the past six decades begin to age and deteriorate," not only are workers at risk, but "potential also exists for serious environmental exposure to asbestos among residents, tenants and users of these buildings, such as school children, office workers, maintenance workers, and the general public."

"The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have projected that over the next 30 years approximately 1,000 cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer will occur among persons in the United States exposed to asbestos in school buildings as school children."

To see if something is carcinogenic, we study those who have the most exposure. That's how we learned about the potential cancer-causing dangers of asbestos, and that's how we're learning about the potential cancer-causing dangers of poultry viruses. For years I've talked about the excess mortality in poultry workers associated with these wart-causing chicken cancer viruses that may be transmitted to those in the general population handling fresh or frozen chicken (See Wart Cancer Viruses in Food). Last year I talked about the largest study at the time "confirming the findings of three other studies to date that workers in poultry slaughtering and processing plants have increased risk of dying from certain cancers," that also added penis cancer to the risks linked to poultry exposure (See Poultry and Penis Cancer). That was looking at 20,000 poultry workers. Well, we have yet another study, now looking at 30,000.

The purpose of the study, profiled in my video, Poultry Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer, was to test the hypothesis that exposure to poultry cancer-causing viruses that widely occurs occupationally in poultry workers--not to mention the general population--may be associated with increased risks of deaths from liver and pancreatic cancers. They found that those who slaughter chickens have about nine times the odds of both pancreatic cancer and liver cancer.

Just to put this in context, the most carefully studied risk factor for pancreatic cancer, one of our deadliest cancers, is cigarette smoking. Even if we smoke for more than 50 years, though, we "only" about double our odds of pancreatic cancer. Those who slaughter poultry appear to have nearly nine times the odds.

For liver cancer the most well-known and studied cause is alcohol. Those who consume more than four drinks a day have triple the odds of liver cancer. As with pancreatic cancer, poultry slaughtering appears to increase one's odds of getting liver cancer nine-fold. Thus, the cancer-causing viruses in poultry may explain the increasing risk of death from liver and pancreatic cancers.

There are diseases unique to the meat industry like the newly described "salami brusher's disease" that affects those whose job it is to wire brush off the white mold that naturally grows on salami for eight hours a day, but most diseases suffered by meat workers are more universal. The reason the connection between asbestos and cancer was so easy to nail down is that asbestos caused a particularly unusual cancer, which was virtually unknown until there was widespread asbestos mining and industrial use. The pancreatic cancer one might get from handling chicken, however, is the same pancreatic cancer one might get smoking cigarettes, so it's more difficult to tease out a cause-and-effect-relationship. Bottom line: despite the extremely high risks of deadly cancers, don't expect an asbestos-type ban on Kentucky Fried Chicken anytime soon.

I've addressed this topic before. See:

It's ironic that the meat industry wants to add viruses to meat (Viral Meat Spray) to combat fecal bacterial contamination. I'd take that over their other bright idea any day, though (Maggot Meat Spray).

A human wart virus, HPV, can be combated with green tea (Treating Genital Warts with Green Tea), as well as by plant-based diets in general (Why Might Vegetarians Have Less HPV?).

Although workers with the most poultry exposure appear to suffer the greatest excess mortality, increased deaths from cancer are also found in other slaughterhouse workers. More on that in Eating Outside Our Kingdom.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image Credit: Peter Cooper / Flickr

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