A study initially investigating aspirin as a preventive treatment for colorectal cancer coincidentally uncovered a mechanism that might explain how fruit and vegetables reduce the risk of developing this disease.
Worldwide, more than 1 million people receive a diagnosis of colorectal cancer each year. It is also the third most common cause of cancer death in the United States.
Experts estimate that in 2019, doctors will diagnose 101,420 new cases of colon cancer and 44,180 new cases of rectal cancer in the U.S. alone. They also expect that 51,020 people will die of colorectal cancer in 2019.
The risk factors for colorectal cancer include certain dietary factors, such as a diet rich in red meat, such as beef, lamb or pork, and processed meats, such as hot dogs. Other risk factors include having overweight and obesity.
Researchers have identified the potential of a flavonoid metabolite to prevent colorectal cancer. This compound occurs in fruit and vegetables, such as blackberries, blueberries, red grapes, apples, red onions, broccoli, pomegranate, strawberries, apricots, red cabbage, and peels of purple eggplant, as well as chocolate and tea.
From aspirin to fruit
Associate Professor Jayarama Gunaje and his team at South Dakota State University in Brookings were initially investigating aspirin as a way to prevent cancer. During their investigation, they uncovered new details about flavonoids and how they might prevent colorectal cancer. They recently published their findings in the journal Cancers.
Previous studies had identified that flavonoids, natural compounds in fruit and vegetables, inhibit cancer, but no one knew what made them effective.
“Our laboratory has been working on the mechanism of cancer prevention by aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), a household drug that has been known to decrease the occurrences of colorectal cancers for over a decade.
While investigating this phenomenon, we were conducting experiments on the role of aspirin metabolites and other derivatives of salicylic acid for their ability to inhibit cancer cell growth,” he explained.
During this process, the team discovered that 2,4,6-trihydroxybenzoic acid (2,4,6-THBA) — a compound produced when gut bacteria break down flavonoids — inhibits the enzymes involved in cell division.
“Encouraged by these findings, we hypothesized that 2,4,6-THBA might be a contributor to the cancer preventive properties of flavonoids. Subsequent experiments proved that 2,4,6-THBA inhibits cancer cell growth in cells expressing a functional transporter protein (SLC5A8) in the plasma membrane,” Gunaje said.