VITAMINS, SEX AND CERVICAL CANCER
Antioxidants lacking in women with this cancer
By Colette Bouchez
MONDAY, April 30 (HealthScout) -- Could protection from cervical cancer be as simple as popping a vitamin pill? That may be a stretch, but a new study links certain nutrients with this cancer and upping them may be protective.
Women who have pre-cancerous cervical lesions don't have enough of certain antioxidants -- vitamin E and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) -- and this makes them far more susceptible to developing cervical cancer, says new research presented today at the 50th annual meeting of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Increasing those nutrient levels, say researchers, might offer some protection against this cancer.
"What we proved in this study is actually two-fold -- we showed that women who have lower blood levels of certain antioxidants also have lower levels of these same nutrients in their cervical cells -- and we learned that women who have these lower nutrient levels also are at greater risk for CIN -- cervical intraepithelial neoplasia -- a change in cervical cells that is the precursor to cervical cancer," says Dr. Magdy S. Mikhail, lead study author and researcher at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center in New York.
Antioxidants are nutrients that help neutralize the effects of free radicals -- molecules that cause an oxidation process that eventually damages cells. Experts think that cell damage might be a precursor to cancer.
While a number of risk factors are linked to CIN -- including smoking and taking birth control pills -- by far the biggest factor seems to be infection with certain strains of HPV -- human papilloma virus -- a sexually transmitted disease. For this reason, cervical cancer is often thought of as a sexually transmitted cancer. If the research is right, says Mikhail, upping your intake of certain nutrients may help prevent infection with HPV -- or ultimately draw the line between HPV and cervical cancer.
"Perhaps nutrient levels may be key in understanding what is it about HPV that leads to cervical cancer," says Mikhail.
Others agree with the premise -- but say it's too early to know for sure. "I have a hunch this may be correct, but I don't think we can confirm it yet -- the control group was small, and it may be not statistically significant," says Dr. Thomas Caputo, chief of gynecologic oncology at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.
However, Caputo also points out that several of his own patients with persistent and stubborn HPV infections have found relief through macrobiotic diets, which help concentrate nutrient intake.
"I do believe there is something to this nutrition issue -- I just don't know for certain what the specific link is," he says.
What the study found
The research involved just over 100 women -- 55 with confirmed CIN, and 20 who had cervical cancer. The control group was 27 women who had no cervical lesions at all. To begin the study, doctors measured the women's plasma blood levels for both CoQ10 and vitamin E.
Then they tested the cervical cells to see if they also lacked the antioxidants.
The result: Women who had either CIN or cervical cancer had markedly lower levels of both CoQ10 and vitamin E in their blood and in their cervical cells than the women who were healthy.
While this was the first study to note the decrease in CoQ10 -- a powerful antioxidant -- it is not the first to make the correlation between vitamins and CIN. Published studies have also shown that vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene -- all antioxidants -- seem to be lower in women with precancerous cervical lesions or cervical cancer.
"The next step is to see whether or not increasing the intake of antioxidant nutrients can reverse the cancer process, or, more likely, act as a preventive, helping to keep the precancerous cells from becoming cancer, or even keep them from developing at all," says Mikhail.
Caputo agrees: "This is the tip of the iceberg -- I don't think it's just these nutrients, there may also be subtle metabolic defects that either occur because the patient has the disease or occurs and helps promote the disease."
What To Do
If you are a sexually active woman -- thereby at increased risk for cervical cancer -- doctors say be extra vigilant about eating a healthful diet, particularly one containing lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"This diet is healthy in general -- and it could also help reduce your risk of cervical cancer," says Mikhail.
In terms of supplements, however, doctors are still reluctant to recommend using them as a cancer preventive. But, says Mikhail, "It couldn't hurt to take antioxidant supplements in reasonable amounts."
Caputo agrees: "Generally, I do believe in taking vitamins -- and I do think diet can also play a role in disease prevention."
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