Life Extension Magazine November 2012
EPIGENETICS for Breast Cancer Prevention
By Alexander Johnson
Every year, nearly 250,000 women learn that they have invasive breast cancer. Roughly 58,000 more will be diagnosed with early cases of the disease.1 And about 40,000 will die.2
Some women are so paralyzed by the fear of this disease that they undergo double mastectomies in a drastic attempt to prevent it from occurring.
Despite these dire numbers and drastic actions, there is hope for the prevention of breast cancer. And it doesn't come in the form of risky surgical procedures—it comes from nature itself.
Up to 50% of breast cancer cases are now thought to be preventable through simple changes in diet and lifestyle.3,4 The use of specific agents to prevent cancer from developing is called chemoprevention. Utilized properly, chemoprevention should be able to eliminate pre-malignant cells, block the progression of normal cells into invasive tumors, and ultimately stop a cancer before it ever reaches a size that could cause symptoms or be detected.5
Research has demonstrated that there are scores of nutrient molecules with potent, and often multiple chemotherapeutic effects. For example, calcium, selenium, and vitamin D have all shown some effect in reducing cancer occurrence.6 An even larger array of nutrients is responsible for changes that promise powerful chemoprevention against breast cancer.7
In this article we'll explore some of the most exciting implications of the power of nutritional supplementation to prevent breast cancer. Then we'll give you a rundown of nearly three dozen specific nutrients that hold out special hope in the fight against this epidemic killer.
Revolutionary New Science Holds The Key to Breast Cancer Prevention
A relatively new science called epigenetics has shed light on the enormous control we as individuals have on whether or not we develop cancer. The science of epigenetics is the study of long-lasting changes in gene function that do not involve changes in gene structure.9 Epigenetics has taught us that we can use factors such as nutrients to turn a gene on and off.10
If the gene that's activated is a tumor-suppressor gene (a gene that prevents excessive cell replication), or one that triggers termination of defective cells (such as pre-malignant cells through normal apoptotic processes), these epigenetic modifications are capable of blocking the progression of a cancer cell.10
The science of epigenetics has finally explained how nutrients and certain drugs can change the way breast cancer cells age and reproduce.9
Based on the science of epigenetics, Big Pharma is now racing to produce chemopreventive drugs.7 But nature is far ahead, as usual. Scores of researched nutrients have potent, and often multiple, epigenetic and chemotherapeutic effects (Table 1)—without the side effects associated with drugs like tamoxifen, which the FDA approved for breast cancer prevention.
In the next section, we'll look at nature's most powerful chemopreventive nutrients (and a few drugs), how they work, and what they may mean for the future of breast cancer.11
Nature's Cancer-Preventing Nutrients
What follows are 11 categories of targeted nutrients that have been studied for their impact on breast health and cancer prevention. You can choose what combination of nutrients would be most effective for your situation. At the end of this report is a dosing table.
Most of the nutrients in this list have multiple ways in which they help to prevent cancer. That's because each individual nutrient has many different biochemical targets in breast cancer prevention. Because cancer has multiple causes and phases of development, scientists are well aware that a multi-targeted approach is the best way to attack a disease like cancer.
1. Nutrients that Prevent DNA Damage
Breast cancer, like all others, invariably begins with some change to the DNA structure or function of an individual cell. Both DNA damage and a change in the way a normal gene is expressed can trigger a cell to become malignant. In either case, a tumor suppressor gene can become silenced, allowing unregulated cell replication, or a tumor promoter gene can become activated. However, many nutrients work to prevent the DNA damage that can lead to a cell becoming cancerous.
The list of nutrients proven to have anti-breast cancer effects is long, a tribute to the role of oxidant damage in breast cancer formation. Antioxidant nutrients proven to have anti-breast cancer effects include:
2. Nutrients that Control Regulatory Genes
Processes called hypermethylation and histone deacetylation can unlock undesirable epigenetic expression or suppress regulatory genes. Fortunately, a number of nutrients block these processes, and therefore can help to prevent the epigenetic changes that lead to breast cancer. These include:7,11
3. Nutrients that Fight Cancer-Promoting Inflammation
Once a cell has become malignant, inflammation is a powerful epigenetic promoter of the next steps in the process of cancerous transformation.60 Nature provides many natural anti-inflammatory molecules with specific promise in breast cancer chemoprevention, including the following:
4. Nutrients that Block Excessive Cell Replication
The excessive rate of cell replication is one of cancer's best-known features. Many nutrients are capable of blocking the continuous churning of the cellular replication cycle and slowing or stopping cancer growth, which ultimately contributes to breast cancer chemoprevention through epigenetic means. These include:
5. Nutrients that Transform Malignant Cells Back into Healthy Ones
Even after cells have undergone malignant transformation, there's a chance to reverse that process by forcing them to "differentiate" back into normal tissue-forming cells. Nutrients that promote the differentiation of breast cancer cells include:
6. Nutrients that Trigger the Death of Cancer Cells
A powerful natural means of controlling cell replication is the process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Normal cells have the ability to self-destruct if they receive signals that they are replicating too rapidly. Malignant cells lose this ability, contributing to their overwhelming growth rate. A number of nutrients have the ability to restore breast cancer cells' ability to die by apoptosis, including the following:
7. Nutrients that Restore Receptors that Enhance Standard Treatments
Roughly 70% of breast cancer cells depend on a continuous supply of estrogen for their growth, while a smaller number of cancers depend on the growth factor called HER2/neu. These cancers can potentially be treated by interfering with the receptors, making them (at least in theory) less dangerous.
Between 15 and 25% of breast cancers, however, are so-called "triple-negative" cancers, meaning that they lack any of the three receptors (estrogen, progesterone, or HER2/neu), and are correspondingly resistant to treatment. Among the most exciting discoveries in the epigenetics of nutrients for cancer chemoprevention is that many nutrients can restore one or more of those receptors to the surface of breast cancer cells, lowering the bar to effective standard treatments such as the estrogen receptor blocker tamoxifen.15
Other nutrients can modify at least one of the receptors, impairing the cells' ability to receive the growth signals they require, and triggering their early death.
Nutrients (and a drug) capable of epigenetic chemoprevention through modification or restoration of breast cancer receptors, or which have effectiveness against triple negative cancers include:
8. Nutrients that Inhibit Estrogen Production
The enzyme aromatase is responsible for producing estrogen in body tissues, including breast cells. Therefore, inhibiting aromatase activity is an important means of slowing the growth of the 70% of estrogen-dependent breast cancers. Nutrients capable of chemoprevention through aromatase inhibition include:
Note: aromatase inhibiting drugs like Arimidex® (anastrozole) have far more potent estrogen-suppressing effects, but they lower estrogen so much that they can induce severe menopausal effects.
9. Nutrients that Block Abnormal Growth Factors
In addition to estrogen, progesterone, and HER2/neu, a number of other growth factors act on breast cancer cells. Inhibition or epigenetic modification of these growth factors is a major target in breast cancer chemoprevention, especially by the following nutrients: