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Nutritional medicine: Can certain foods help treat cancer?

Researchers at the Centre for Nutritional Medicine (ZEM), a joint institution of the Universities of Hohenheim and Tübingen, are investigating whether and to what extent certain food components can support the treatment of cancer and are hoping to derive scientifically founded dietary recommendations from their findings.

Some foods are known to play a part in the development of cancer whereas others are known to reduce the risk. The aim of the ZEM project is to contribute to dietary recommendations relating to which foods are good or bad for cancer treatment or reducing the risk of developing cancer. “Positive results might also generate recommendations for the consumption of higher doses of specific substances in the form of pills, for example,” said Prof. Dr. Ulrich M. Lauer, specialist in internal medicine and gastroenterology and senior consultant in the Department of Internal Medicine at Tübingen University Hospital. Working with his colleague Prof. Dr. Helmut Salih, senior consultant in the Department of Oncology and Haematology at Tübingen University Hospital and head of the Molecular Tumour Immunology working group, Lauer is coordinating the team of the ZEM Tübingen researchers who are working on a project entitled “Modulation of the antitumour activity of natural killer cells through specific food components”. The project also involves the participation of a group of researchers from the University of Hohenheim led by Prof. Dr. Stephan C. Bischoff, Director of the Institute of Nutritional Medicine at the University of Hohenheim. The Baden-Württemberg government is funding the project for a period of two years; around 100,000 euros of the funding is directed solely at the work of the Tübingen researchers. “As the funding is coming to an end after the two-year period, we need to acquire further financial support in order to continue our research and we have already submitted a funding application to the German Research Foundation,” said Lauer.

Professor Lauer (left) and Professor Salih from Tübingen are part of a project run by the Centre for Nutritional Medicine, which was jointly established by the Universities of Tübingen and Hohenheim. © private

Open outcome project focusing on the positive and negative effects of food

The project is highly ambitious and concentrates on research into positive and negative effects of food without focusing on a particular outcome. The initial aim of the project is to establish a broad screening platform for food components. The Tübingen team will systematically analyse the influence of vitamins, trace elements such as selenium and secondary plant substances such as catechins and butyrates on tumour cells and cells of the human immune system as well as the interaction between such substances. They will use established cell lines, malignant cells from patients and predominantly natural killer (NK) cells of healthy people and cancer patients. The screening platform is expected to close important research gaps due to the fact that although numerous individual investigations have been carried out, no integrative and comprehensive analyses of the diet-dependent modulation of antitumour activity such as those being looked at by the ZEM project are yet available.

It is known, for example, that vitamin A deficiency affects the number and activity of the NK cells of the immune system. This knowledge is of great importance as the NK cells represent the first line of defence of the human antitumour immune response. "The NK cells recognise and destroy abnormal cells that arise in the human organism every single day and are thus able to prevent the development of cancer or the progression or metastasis of cancer cells," said Lauer pointing out that the project will systematically deal with the effect of vitamin A. He hopes that the project will provide the team with findings that will enable them to formulate scientifically founded recommendations on the importance of increasing the uptake of food containing vitamin A. However, before such recommendations can be formulated, the results of the cell culture tests need to be assessed in clinical studies in order to confirm or refute vitamin A-related effects on the human organism as a whole. "The analysis of patient tumour cells has already provided initial evidence on the positive effect of vitamin A. However, we need to carry out clinical studies in order to assess the effect in patients. In order to come up with clear evidence, we need to take regular samples from patients who are given defined doses of specific vitamin A-rich food components prior to and during the entire course of treatment," Lauer explains.

Bioactive nutritional substances are being tested for their potential to be able to modulate NK cell-dependent antitumour responses. The project is also investigating whether bioactive nutritional substances lead to the modulation of intracellular signalling pathways in NK cells, which might lead to the more effective recognition and destruction of tumour cells. © Prof. Lauer, University Hospital Tübingen

Cell culture data and clinical trials generate an overall picture

Tissue samples will be removed from patients with gastrointestinal tumours during endoscopic examinations. Tissue samples removed before and after eating will be investigated to find out whether the function of NK cells has changed as a consequence of the food consumed. “We will establish effect kinetics in order to provide proof of the molecular effect of specific food components,” said Lauer. The same procedure will also be applied to patients suffering from haematologic malignancies such as leukaemias. In such cases, Prof. Salih’s team will investigate blood and bone marrow samples.

The project partners believe that they are well positioned on the international level and their goal is to transfer the results obtained with cell cultures and in clinical trials as quickly as possible to patient treatment. “There are many other research groups around the world currently working on this topic. However, as part of an oncology centre of excellence, we have a particularly large number of highly motivated patients in Tübingen supporting us who are keen to find ways of treating their disease through the consumption or avoidance of particular types of food. And as Tübingen University Hospital is very much focused on translating research results into clinical practice, we have access to excellent clinical and research conditions,” said Lauer citing the high competence in molecular analytics and the close cooperation with the Department of Immunology as examples.

The recommendation to eat or avoid any of the substances under investigation is not only of relevance for cancer treatment. The project might also lead to recommendations as to which foods to consume or avoid for cancer prevention. Such recommendations might be particularly useful for people with a genetic predisposition to cancer as well as for the ordinary “man in the street”. The provision of information about the beneficial nutritional and physiological effects of a given nutrient as stipulated by the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation might be one way of translating the researchers’ results into practical recommendations. “This will not happen within the next two, three or four years, but we are already considering the option of integrating substances with a proven positive effect into food supplements or functional food,” said Lauer. With this long-term objective in mind, the Centre for Nutritional Medicine as an institution would enable researchers to move directly from research into developing foods with a beneficial nutritional and physiological effect.

Further information:

University Hospital Tübingen
Internal Medicine I
Prof. Dr. Ulrich M. Lauer
72076 Tübingen
Tel.: +49 (0)7071/ 29 - 83 190
E-mail: ulrich.lauer(at)med.uni-tuebingen.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/nutritional-medicine-can-certain-foods-help-treat-cancer