Why poor diets are linked to cancer

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A research team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has made significant strides in understanding how poor diet and common metabolic disorders like diabetes may increase cancer risk.

Their study, recently published in Cell, suggests new pathways for developing cancer prevention strategies that promote healthier aging.

The research was spearheaded by Professor Ashok Venkitaraman at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore) and the NUS Center for Cancer Research (N2CR), along with collaborators from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

The findings are particularly relevant as they offer insights into how everyday environmental factors such as diet and exercise influence cancer risk, which remains poorly understood.

Central to the study is the impact of methylglyoxal, a byproduct of glucose breakdown within our cells. The team focused on individuals at high risk for breast and ovarian cancers due to inherited mutations in the BRCA2 gene.

They found that cells from these individuals are unusually sensitive to damage by methylglyoxal, leading to DNA faults that can initiate cancer.

More broadly, the research indicates that people with diabetes or pre-diabetes—conditions linked to higher levels of methylglyoxal due to poor diet or obesity—might also face increased cancer risk.

This suggests that methylglyoxal levels, which can be detected through routine HbA1C blood tests, might serve as a new biomarker for cancer risk.

Professor Venkitaraman highlighted the potential for preventive measures that could mitigate cancer risk through dietary changes and medical interventions to manage methylglyoxal levels.

Dr. Li Ren Kong, a lead researcher on the project, emphasized the significance of their findings in understanding the role of metabolic pathways in cancer development. This connection between diet, metabolic health, and cancer risk underscores the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and eating well.

In a revision of established cancer theory, the NUS team also challenged the traditional “two-hit” hypothesis, which has dominated cancer genetics since the 1970s. According to this model, cancer-preventing genes must be permanently inactivated for tumors to develop.

However, the study suggests that temporary inactivation of these genes by methylglyoxal could cumulatively increase cancer risk over time, especially with repeated exposure to poor diet or unmanaged diabetes.

Looking forward, the researchers plan to extend their investigations to assess how metabolic disorders affect cancer risk in different populations, particularly in Singapore and other Asian countries.

They aim to uncover new mechanisms linking metabolism, diet, and cancer to better prevent or delay cancer onset. This research not only advances our understanding of cancer biology but also highlights the crucial role of lifestyle choices in managing cancer risk.

If you care about cancer, please read studies that low-carb diet could increase overall cancer risk, and new way to increase the longevity of cancer survivors.

For more information about cancer, please see recent studies about how to fight cancer with these anti-cancer superfoods, and results showing daily vitamin D3 supplementation may reduce cancer death risk.

The research findings can be found in Cell.

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