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Antioxidants Could Hasten the Spread of Cancer

A study recently published in Nature has revealed that antioxidants, usually hailed as essential for a healthy body, may actually be harmful to cancer patients. The study, conducted at the Children’s Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI), revealed that metastasis of cancer cells occurred more quickly in mice that were given antioxidants.

The mice used in this study were specialised rodents bearing transplanted melanoma cells from humans. According to Science Daily, “prior studies had shown that the metastasis of human melanoma cells in these mice is predictive of their metastasis in patients.” This meant that researchers at CRI could obtain a realistic idea of the impact that antioxidants are likely to have on human cancer sufferers. They found that the spread of cancer in antioxidant-dosed mice was faster than the spread in the group that did not receive antioxidants.

A study conducted by the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy in January 2014 showed similar results to the CRI study. Antioxidants were given to mice with melanoma tumours, and the rate of metastasis in the mice doubled. The study also revealed that the new tumours were highly aggressive.

Metastasis, the spread of cancer from the primary tumour to other parts of the body, is behind the deaths of most cancer patients. However, as Science Daily puts it, metastasis is actually a relatively “inefficient” way for cells to reproduce because they are damaged by the natural oxidisation process. According to Dr Sean Morrison, CRI Director, metastasizing cancer cells usually experience considerable “oxidative stress”. With antioxidants relieving this stress and preventing the damage, cancer cells are able to spread more freely. Dr Morrison stated that some other clinical trials, involving the administration of antioxidants to human cancer patients, had to be stopped early as patients began dying more quickly.

Antioxidants are frequently found in vitamins and health drinks, and are generally promoted as being excellent for the body. Antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, prunes, and strawberries (among others) are often recommended as a good way of preventing cancer. It is true that a reduction in damaging oxidation could be helpful for healthy people; the danger arises when people with cancer consume large amounts of extra antioxidants. Although the results of these studies have not yet been replicated in humans, they do raise the possibility that pro-oxidants could prevent or limit metastasis.

To read the article on the CRI study in Science Daily, click here. Alternatively, visit the Nature journal site to read the original study.

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