Instead of chemotherapy or radiation, imagine drinking a can of juice each morning to treat prostate cancer or nursing a candy for tongue or throat cancer.
Food could be the new cancer treatment. Food scientists, plant geneticists and doctors at The Ohio State University have been working together to create plants – and foods made from these plants – that have anti-cancer properties.
Plants have dozens of phytochemicals. Some are “chemical warfare” they use to protect themselves from harm, some help them reproduce and pollinate, and some make them colorful, says Dr. Steve Clinton, program leader of molecular carcinogenesis and chemoprevention at the OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.
“Many of these (phytochemicals), we’re learning, may have activity in people and may have benefits if you consume them in a reasonable amount,” Clinton says. “In a healthy, diverse diet of five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, you might get hundreds of chemicals that have interesting properties.”
Epidemiological and population studies point researchers toward plants that may have phytochemicals with potential positive influences on human health. For example, countries where soy has been traditionally consumed, such as Japan and China, have had lower rates of colon, breast and prostate cancers than countries with Western diets.
Ohio State is uniquely poised to take on the challenge of building upon that research because it is one of the few universities in the country to have an extensive agriculture program, school of public health and comprehensive cancer center under one roof, Clinton says.
“We can sit down with these people and say, ‘Why don’t we make a tomato that has more of the phytochemicals in it that have anti-cancer properties?’” he says. “Once we make these novel food products, (we) do research on people to see if they truly have the health-promoting or disease-preventing properties we’re trying to attain.”
For example, James recently hosted a clinical trial of a soy-tomato juice for prostate cancer patients. The idea, Clinton says, is to deliver the positive health benefits of soy to those who wouldn’t normally consume it.
“If we want men to eat more soy, we can’t just say, ‘Why don’t you eat more tofu?’” Clinton says. “How do we get it into a food product that might be easier to consume? … He can have a can of soy tomato juice. That’s stuff you can throw in your briefcase or your lunch bucket. When you add soy into tomato juice, it tastes reasonably good. The next step is to (create) a vegetable juice that has other things in it than soy and tomato … that have anti-cancer properties, such as cruciferous vegetables.”
Another study applied research on the antioxidants found in black raspberries and their effect on oral cancers.
“We know from studies that black raspberries have anti-cancer properties in those systems, so how do we get the best delivery of black raspberries to the targets in the mouth?” Clinton says. “You want to have a lot of interaction between that and the oral mucosa.”
To that end, the team developed a black raspberry gummy candy and a black raspberry juice, and is hoping to study both in clinical trials with oral cancer patients.
The research at Ohio State is being funded in part by Growing the Cure, an initiative formed by five Ohio and Indiana farming cooperatives. The program kicked off about a year ago with a donation of more than $103,000 to the James and continues to raise funds for the cause via individual farmers, who are offered the chance to donate each time they buy supplies through the co-op. Growing the Cure will present the university with a check for its first-year fundraising total in September.
Though a food-based cure for cancer is still a dream for the future, current cancer patients can avail themselves of the latest research on dietary links to good health via the Survivors Garden, a two-acre farm on Ohio State’s agriculture campus that is now in its second year. Cancer patients, survivors and their families can tend the garden, harvest fruits and vegetables, and learn from chefs and dietitians how to cook them.
“We have several teaching sessions that include anti-cancer dietary guidelines and how to prepare the foods to fit into that,” Clinton says. “A lot of folks who have just gone through a very intense experience of cancer therapy … are looking for ways to empower themselves to be healthier and maybe to ward off any chance of recurrence, to see what (they) can do with food and nutrition … to get control of the situation and recover from treatment and live a healthier life free of cancer.”
Clinton, himself, is taking his in-depth knowledge of food’s healthful properties to the national level as a member of the committee that is working on the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans to be released in 2015. The guidelines influence meals at all levels, including school lunches and meals in hospitals and nursing homes.
Lisa Aurand is a contributing editor. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.