Women whose diets are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and other foods, may be able to greatly reduce the risk of aggressive breast cancer tumor growth, according to new research involving mice.
The study, published by researchers from the University of Guelph in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, found a lifelong diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids inhibited the growth of breast cancer tumors by 30 percent.
"It's a significant finding," said researcher David Ma, a professor in Guelph's Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. "We show that lifelong exposure to omega-3s has a beneficial role in disease prevention — in this case, breast cancer prevention. What's important is that we have proven that omega-3s are the driving force and not something else."
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women and the second leading cause of female cancer deaths. Health experts have long believed a healthy diet may help prevent cancer, but few studies have offered conclusive evidence.
"There are inherent challenges in conducting and measuring diet in such studies, and it has hindered our ability to firmly establish linkages between dietary nutrients and cancer risk," said Ma. "So we've used modern genetic tools to address a classic nutritional question."
For the new study, the researchers genetically engineered mice to produce omega-3 fatty acids and develop aggressive breast cancer tumors. The researchers then compared the mice with others genetically engineered only to develop the same tumors.
The results showed mice producing omega-3s developed only two-thirds as many tumors — and those cancer cells were also 30 percent smaller — as the other mice.
"The difference can be solely attributed to the presence of omega-3s in the transgenic mice — that's significant," Ma said, noting the study’s design offered a unique way to compare the effects of the fatty acids. "The fact that a food nutrient can have a significant effect on tumor development and growth is remarkable and has considerable implications in breast cancer prevention."
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Ma hopes the study will lead to more research on using diet to reduce cancer risk and on the benefits of healthy living.
"Prevention is an area of growing importance. We are working to build a better planet, and that includes better lifestyle and diet," he said. "The long-term consequences of reducing disease incidence can have a tremendous effect on the healthcare system."
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