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Vegetables Shield Mice From Cancer In OSU Study

By Greg Bolt

The Register-Guard

Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pregnant women may be able to give their offspring a better chance of avoiding cancer by doing what they will later tell their children: Eat your vegetables.

In a study using laboratory mice, researchers from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University have found that a nutrient in certain vegetables cut cancer risk in half among the offspring of mothers given a supplement of the chemical during pregnancy. What's more, that protection lasted through childhood into adulthood.

The study is one of the first to suggest that the diet of pregnant and nursing mothers could play a role in how well their children are protected against cancer.

"We think it's a really striking finding," said David Williams, lead researcher on the study and director of the Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center at OSU. "I think it's really a potentially exciting new area of research."

advertisement More study is needed before anyone can say whether the findings can be applied to humans. In fact, Williams said it's important that women not boost their intake of the nutrient through over-the-counter supplements because it's possible high levels of the chemical during the first trimester of pregnancy could be associated with birth defects.

"I would not by any means recommend that people take a lot of this stuff," he said.

The research, funded by the National Cancer Institute, looked at the role played by a key phytochemical known as Indole-3-carbinol, also called I3C or simply carbinol. The nutrient is found in what are known as cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and other greens.

In the study, scientists exposed pregnant mice to a powerful environmental carcinogen called dibenzopyrene, one of a group of chemicals produced by cigarette smoking and also from burning organic material such as wood, coal, diesel fuel and cooking oil. One group of mice also received a supplement of I3C and another group did not.

Of those that did not receive the supplement, 80 percent of their offspring died early from an aggressive cancer of the lymphatic system called lymphoma. Of those that survived to the mouse equivalent of middle age, all developed lung cancer.

But mice given the I3C supplement produced offspring that had only half as many lymphoma deaths. Those that survived also developed significantly fewer lung tumors.

The pregnant mice were given I3C starting in the second trimester of pregnancy and continuing until they finished nursing.

"We think it's really striking that the offspring themselves are never exposed to carbinol," Williams said. "But the

they got from the mother either in the womb or from breast feeding was sufficient to protect them from lymphoma out to what would be the equivalent of a young adult in humans or even out to what would be middle age in humans."

It's not clear yet whether the protection occurs in the womb or from breast-feeding or both. That's something researchers plan to explore in future experiments.

Williams said that what struck him about this study, published in the journal Carcinogenesis, was how much the nutrient helped.

"I was frankly surprised by the amount of protection we did see," he said. "We were hoping to see some protection, but to have the risk cut in half was really quite striking."

The research could lead to a better understanding of why some smokers get lung cancer and others don't. It's possible that dietary and other factors could play a role in whether a person is more or less vulnerable to the disease.

Although carbinol supplements are not advised for now, Williams said no harm would come from the amount of the nutrient a person would get from a diet high in cruciferous vegetables. But scientists will have to do further studies before they understand how the nutrient works and how much of it is safe for humans, particularly pregnant women.

Williams and his colleagues already are looking at the effect of micronutrients in other substances, such as green tea and chlorophyll. Those studies are not yet ready for publication, but Williams described the initial results as interesting.

"I don't think this model is just going to be limited to carbinol or cruciferous vegetables," he said. "I think there's going to be a number of compounds that we know are good for you that, if given to the mother during pregnancy, protect the offspring (from disease)."


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