In order to evaluate the potential of dietary supplements for cancer prevention and treatment, it is necessary to understand the molecular mechanisms of cancer development.
Cancer is regarded as a ‘multistep’ disease that originates as a result of permanent changes (called mutations) in the DNA representing genes. Such mutations are caused by any one or more of environmental factors to which bodies are exposed. Some of these factors include UV rays from the sun that people are exposed to at the beach or while tanning, industrial toxic pollutants released into the environment, and even the X-rays in doctor’s and dentist’s clinics.
Minor damages to DNA are repaired by the cells themselves; however if the damage to DNA is major and unrepairable, the cells undergo a “death spiral" using a mechanism called programmed cell death. This allows for elimination of defective cells and preservation of order and function in the body.
How do tumors develop?
The body’s complex organ systems developed from a single cell when we were conceived. This single embryonic cell divided into a number of cells and as development progressed, which then differentiated into specialized cells and organs performing various specialized functions of the body (such as eyes to see, lungs to breath, etc.). All of these cells die periodically and are replaced by new cells. It is said that over the course of seven years, all of the body’s cells are replaced, which causes people to age.
During cancer formation, some of the cells revert back to undifferentiated states and lose their ability to fulfil specialized functions required by the body. They also become immortalized (meaning they no longer die) and start to divide rapidly; however, these immortalized cells are useless to the body and become a tumor mass growing without controls. This interferes with body functions such as respiration if formed in lungs, digestion if formed in intestine or colon, or putting pressure in the limited space of the skull if formed in brain. This results in pain, suffering and eventually, death.
In addition, some cells of the tumor can detach, travel to nearest blood vessel, bore through the wall and get into the blood stream, travel to other parts and divide to form a new tumor. This is the mechanism (called metastasis) by which cancer spreads in the body, resulting in loss of function of affected organs. The tumors even develop their own blood vessels to import nutrition.
Are there mechanisms in our body to prevent cancer formation?
The cells in our body also make proteins capable of suppressing cancer tumor formation. These proteins are called tumor suppressors and help to maintain the integrity of our genes. One such protein is called p53; others include BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are found in the breast to suppress cancer formation. Unfortunately, the genes responsible for making these proteins can undergo mutation themselves. As a result, these genes make defective tumor suppressors, which causes them to convert from a protective protein to a dangerous protein that can actually cause breast cancer.
These deleterious mutations can become hereditary and may be carried to successive generations. There is genetic testing available to check women for such mutations in genes making BRCA1 and BRCA2. If they are found in women, oncologists recommend removal of both breasts in order to prevent cancer formation. In fact, many celebrities in the film industry and media have had their breasts removed surgically for fear of getting cancer.
How can dietary supplements prevent or treat cancers?
The DNA mutations induced by ionizing radiation (as UV rays, X-rays and toxins) are mediated by the reactive oxygen species (ROS) at the molecular level. These are chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen. Paradoxically, the ROS is a double-edged sword capable of doing good or harm. They are used by white blood cells to kill invading bacteria, but they also can cause inflammation when unchecked, or cause mutations in DNA and lead to cancer, aging and cardiovascular disease.
Fortunately, a number of compounds widely occurring in plants are able to combat the damage caused by ROS (also called free-radical damage) by inactivating them. This forms the scientific basis for development of such antioxidant dietary supplements. Vitamins C, A and E that are widely distributed in fruits and plants, anthocyanins that give striking colors to fruits and vegetables, resveratrol present in red wine and grape seeds/skin, genestin present in soy beans, curcumin present in turmeric root (used in curry powder), Indole-3-carbinol and glucoraphane present in broccoli, quercetin from apple peel, and phycocyanin from spirulina are examples of antioxidants. Individually used, these antioxidants have been shown to kill various cancer cells (including show found in the ovaries, breasts, prostate and liver) at high concentrations.
One recent study shows spirulina fed to rats could prevent breast cancer induced by a carcinogen (The American Journal of Pathology. 184:1. Jan 2014.) The ingredient reduced the death rate of affected rats from about 85 percent to 12 percent. Solid tumors developed in the rats were literally liquefied, drained and dried out. However, unlike the breast cancer induced in rats, human breast cancer cells required a combination of six of these antioxidants to be killed completely, and they were not effective when used individually. This formed the basis for developing the nutritional supplement Breast Safeguard-Susthana (sold by Protegene Corp.) for breast health support. When used in combination, these antioxidants synergize together and are more effectively absorbed from the digestive system when used in combination with pepper extract (containing piperine).
As a result of recognizing molecular mechanisms by which various natural products act to kill cancer cells, while also uncovering synergism of their combined actions, this branch of science is progressing quickly. The National Institutes of Science now has a specific branch devoted to such studies, which should lead to systematic clinical trials using human subjects to prove safety, efficacy and reliability of such plant products in preventing and even curing cancers.
Madhwa H.G. Raj, M.Sc., Ph.D., is a professor in the department of obstetrics-gynecology and member of the Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans. He has published more than 70 publications on reproductive endocrinology, male contraception and cancer. He was also an invited participant in the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology program of NIH for male contraceptive vaccine development and was a participating laboratory sponsor for the Rockefeller Foundation Technology Transfer Program. Raj is currently developing a clinical trial program for use of phytochemical super-cocktail in breast cancer chemoprevention/chemotherapy in collaboration with Protegene Corporation (www.protegenecorporation.com ). Raj can be reached at [email protected].
Shailaja G. Raj, M.D., F.A.C.O.G., R.E.I., is an American board certified obstetrician-gynecologist with specialization in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. She completed her advanced training at Harvard/Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and NIH. Raj is currently in private practice at the Southern Fertility Center in the greater New Orleans area. She is also the founding president and CEO of Protegene Corporation (www.protegenecorporation.com), which has commercialized the Breast Safeguard Susthana supplement for breast health support. The supplement was adjudged as a finalist for SuppySide’s CPG Editors Choice Awards in 2014. Raj can be contacted through www.protegenecorporation.com.