How eating red meat can spur cancer progression

November 13, 2008

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, led by Ajit Varki, M.D., have shown a new mechanism for how human consumption of red meat and milk products could contribute to the increased risk of cancerous tumors. Their findings, which suggest that inflammation resulting from a molecule introduced through consumption of these foods could promote tumor growth, are published online this week in advance of print publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Varki, UC San Diego School of Medicine distinguished professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine, and co-director of the UCSD Glycobiology Research and Training Center, and colleagues studied a non-human cellular molecule called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc). Neu5Gc is a type of glycan, or sugar molecule, that humans don't naturally produce, but that can be incorporated into human tissues as a result of eating red meat. The body then develops anti-Neu5Gc antibodies – an immune response that could potentially lead to chronic inflammation, as first suggested in a 2003 PNAS paper by Varki.

"We've shown that tumor tissues contain much more Neu5Gc than is usually found in normal human tissues," said Varki. "We therefore surmised that Neu5Gc must somehow benefit tumors."

It has been recognized by scientists for some time that chronic inflammation can actually stimulate cancer, Varki explained. So the researchers wondered if this was why tumors containing the non-human molecule grew even in the presence of Neu5Gc antibodies.

"The paradox of Neu5Gc accumulating in human tumors in the face of circulating antibodies suggested that a low-grade, chronic inflammation actually facilitated the tumor growth, so we set out to study that hypothesis," said co-author Nissi M.Varki, M.D., UCSD professor of pathology.

Using specially bred mouse models that lacked the Neu5Gc molecule – mimicking humans before the molecule is absorbed into the body through ingesting red meat – the researchers induced tumors containing Neu5Gc, and then administered anti-Neu5Gc antibodies to half of the mice. In mice that were given antibodies inflammation was induced, and the tumors grew faster. In the control mice that were not treated with antibodies, the tumors were less aggressive

Others have previously shown that humans who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (commonly known as NSAIDs) have a reduced risk of cancer. Therefore, the mice with cancerous tumors facilitated by anti-Neu5Gc antibodies were treated with an NSAID. In these animals, the anti-inflammatory treatment blocked the effect of the Neu5Gc antibodies and the tumors were reduced in size.

"Taken together, our data indicate that chronic inflammation results from interaction of Neu5Gc accumulated in our bodies from eating red meat with the antibodies that circulate as an immune response to this non-human molecule – and this may contribute to cancer risk," said Varki.

Source: University of California - San Diego

Related Stories

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (4) Nov 13, 2008
I'd like to know if this is domesticated (aka inoculated etc) or wild meat...
1 / 5 (2) Nov 13, 2008
Brake into the secrets of seed and plant suppliers to find chemicals and treatments that cause accelerated mitosis. Fertilizers do the same. Fatening cows before market involves chemicals that do the same! They are killing us!
5 / 5 (3) Nov 14, 2008
This just in. Breathing increases your chances of getting Cancer, along with every other disease. If you need help stopping just go to the nearest seady part of town make a scene and a qualified professional will help you with you breathing addiction.

On a more serious note, why in the heck would they make a big deal promoting Vegan crap, but not point out the important possible relationship to the NSAID/reduced risk relationsip. Obviously inflamation results in increased bloodflow/nutrients, but Aleve to fight cancer seems less obvious.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 14, 2008
Would U like fries wit dat?
5 / 5 (3) Nov 14, 2008
First it only means that if you already have cancer you should not consume red meat or milk it doesn't mean that red meat or milk can induce cancer.

But even this conclusion is suspect, it all depends on the levels of antibodies against this particular glycan that our bodies produce. They should first check whether normal humans who consume red meat and milk suffer from chronic inflammation, personally I've never heard such a claim before. Without proof of such inflammation the conclusions drawn are unjustified.

Another thing is that glycobiology is still poorly understood and it can differ markedly even for related species (as is the case for this molecule) so its hard to extrapolate any results from mouse to humans.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.