Plant Nutrients and the Genes that Suppress the Spread of Cancer

Over 40 plant-based nutrients can turn on the genes that slow down the spread of cancer, according to new research.

Reported by Monica Wilde. 26 September 2012.

Diet, nutrients and plant-based supplements have often been taken by cancer patients and the science is starting to catch up. In the past, many nutritional approaches that support the health of those with cancer, such as special juicing regimes and raw food diets, have not always been regarded seriously by the medical profession. 

This week the British newspaper, The Daily Mail reported the case of a 78 year old man who "was told by doctors that his cancer was 'incurable', and was given the all-clear less than four months later - after trying a different diet". He cut out meat completely, increased his intake of fresh fruit and veg to 10 portions a day (raw broccoli for example has cancer protective properties), and ate large quantities of superfoods. 

This week also saw the publication of a scientific report (carried out at Washington State University and published in the journal, Cancer Metastasis Review) that supports the essential connection between plant nutrients in our diet and the spread of cancer. This scientific research, is invaluable in encouraging us to take a serious look at our diet to support good health. It might also finally encourage hospitals to provide far higher levels of dietary nutrients to patients than they do now. 

The prevention of cancer through diet

Observational studies published over the last 15 years have recorded that sticking to dietary guidelines relating to decreasing cancer, like those published by The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research/World Cancer Research Fund, is associated with a 22 % reduction of cancer-related death [Balter et al, 2012]. 

Two of the guidelines recommended by these organizations are:

  • eating foods of plant origin such as nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, and legumes (pea & bean family), which contain a variety of anticancer phytochemicals (Aravindaram & Yang, 2010)
  • decreasing your consumption of red meat as a source of protein (Niedzwiecki et al, 2010).

Many phytochemicals found in edible plants are known to slow down the spread of cancer through the body and more and more research is starting to appear in the last couple of years.

But there is little research on how these phytochemicals work, and crucially, the importance of diet, dietary components, and various phytochemicals, on the genes that prevent cancer actually spreading. 

The spread of cancer (metastasis) is a crucial factor

Researcher, Gary Meadows, WSU professor and associate dean for graduate education and scholarship in the College of Pharmacy, thought his significant because it is the spread of cancer that most often makes it fatal.

The major factor in the rate of cancer spreading and death of cancer patients is metastasis (the spread of cancer from one organ to another). There are relatively few specific medical treatment options to control metastasis and they are very heavy on the patients' body. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy side effects can often be as debilitating as the disease itself.

This research has found that not only can a healthy diet and lifestyle inhibit tumours from developing in the first place, but it can also have a major impact on cancer progression and survival for those who have developed cancer. 

For example, plants such as cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts contain high amounts of compounds called glucosinolates (GSLs) which are active against cancer cells. Sulphoraphane in broccoli being one (Cornblatt et al, 2007). People who eat large amounts of these vegetables may benefit from a lower risk of cancer. The action of chewing the raw vegetable also releases a plant enzyme called myrinase which activates the GSL, turning it into its cancer fighting form. This may explain some of the science behind the approach to increasing the amount of raw vegetables eaten in nutritional therapies. 

Plant nutrients can prevent cancer spreading

Meadows' research is significant as it looks at how plant nutrients control the expression of genes, switching the genes that suppress cancer metastasis 'on' or 'off'.

"We're always looking for a magic bullet," said Meadows. "Well, there are lots of magic bullets out there in what we eat and associated with our lifestyle. We just need to take advantage of those. And they can work together." 

Meadows started the study with a basic logic approach. 

"Most research focuses on the prevention of cancer or the treatment of the original cancer tumour, but it's usually the cancer's spread to nearby organs that kills you. So rather than attack the tumour," said Meadows, "let's control its spread, or metastasis."  

He decided to focus on genes that suppress metastasis. It was a challenging study as the concept of nutrients and metastasis suppressor genes has hardly been written about before, although it was sometimes mentioned - almost as an accidental finding. But Meadows analysed previous studies to see when metastasis suppressor genes were on or off, and found that dozens of substances affect the metastasis suppressor genes of numerous cancers. 

Phytonutrients affect a range of cancer types

Meadows found that 

  • amino acids
  • vitamin D
  • ethanol ( used to extract most herbal tinctures)
  • ginseng extract
  • the tomato carotenoid lycopene
  • the turmeric component curcumin
  • pomegranate juice
  • fish oil 
  • and other nutrients

do affect how genes behave in breast, colorectal, prostate, skin, lung and other cancers. And this behaviour was primarily turning metastasis suppressor genes on and off (known as acting epigenetically).

So his conclusion was that the genes that switch cancer spread on or off, are influenced by what we eat.  The role of natural compounds in helping our bodies slow or stop the spread of cancer is far more important that scientists originally believed and much more research needs to be carried out.  "There's likely to be more compounds out there, more constituents, that people haven't even evaluated yet." said Meadows

Meadows also sees these studies playing an important role in the shift from preventing cancer to living with it and keeping it from spreading. 

"We've kind of focused on the cancer for a long time," he says. "More recently we've started to focus on the cancer in its environment. And the environment, your whole body as an environment, is really important in whether or not that cancer will spread."

This supports the fundamental importance of a holistic approach to good health.


Please note: Under the Cancer Act 1939, is illegal for any person other than a qualified oncologist, doctor or hospital to treat cancer, provide a remedy, nor advise you on your treatment, if you have cancer. However, a herbalist or nutritionist can advise you on what constitutes a healthy diet based on plant nutrients.

© Napiers Herbals Ltd 2014 • Edinburgh and Glasgow • Herbalists and Medical Botanists since 1860
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