Finding Natural Solutions to Prevent and Treat Cancer

Finding Natural Solutions to Prevent and Treat Cancer

March 19, 2013

When you sit down to a salad full of pumpkins seeds, tofu, almonds and healthy greens followed by a main course of seafood flavored with ginger and a glass of wine, cancer prevention is probably not on your mind.

Unless, that is, you are a scientist at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, just north of Charlotte. NCRC scientists are investigating the bioactive compounds and nutrients in these foods for their potential as cancer preventatives and treatments.

Ginger, the root of the plant Zingiber officinale, contains bioactive compounds like gingerol, shogaol and zerumbone that are responsible for the spice’s distinctive flavor and its numerous health benefits. Shengmin Sang, PhD, with the NC A&T University Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies, points out that for centuries ginger has been a remedy for digestive upsets, and now research has proven the anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-diabetes activities of its bioactive components.

Sang has a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study ginger as a preventative for lung cancer. He also studies ginger as a preventative for colon cancer. Partnering with TinChung Leung, PhD, with the NC Central University (NCCU) Nutrition Research Program, Sang found that the bioactive component 10-gingerol can reduce the occurrence of anemia from chemotherapy or renal disease.

Zerumbone, a phytochemical in ginger, is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-HIV properties. At the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute, senior researcher Mary Grace, PhD, with Akram Aloqbi, a visiting doctoral candidate from the University of Surrey, England, is analyzing the quantity and activity level of zerumbone in ginger varieties to determine if there is potential for the development of new cancer treatments.

Wine and Tofu
Wine is recognized as a source of the phytonutrient resveratrol, which is found in grapes, blueberries and several other berry varieties. In the NCCU lab of Xiaohe Yang, PhD, the compound is being studied for its preventative and therapeutic benefits in relation to Her2 breast cancer. Yang is also researching genistein, a plant-based estrogen found in soy products like tofu. He’s found that genistein can act as a preventative agent against the development of breast cancer during puberty or earlier in life. For breast cancer survivors or women with erbB-2/Her2 and estrogen receptor (ER) double positive tumors, Yang’s findings suggest that they should limit their soy consumption because the estrogenic effects of genistein could stimulate cell division and tumor growth creating a risk factor.

Almonds, Eggs and Legumes
Eggs, meats, nuts and legumes are sources of the essential nutrient choline. The research of Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, director of the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) and a leading expert on choline, has proven that a lack of dietary choline in pregnant women can affect their baby’s brain development. Low choline intake can also lead to numerous health problems including liver damage, muscle damage and fatty liver disease (FLD). FLD is an accumulation of fat in the liver that interrupts its ability to function and metabolize sugar, protein and fats. FLD is often a precursor to cirrohisis and liver cancer.

Karen Corbin, PhD, a member of Zeisel’s research team, is focused on non-alcohol induced FLD, which is linked to dietary choices and diseases like obesity and diabetes. Through her research into the genetic variations in the choline and related pathways involved in fat metabolism in the liver, she uncovered a genetic pattern that could distinguish individuals with very low versus very high levels of liver fat, and a genetic pattern distinct to African Americans, who, as an ethnic group, have very low incidence of fatty liver. Corbin is continuing her studies to refine her model as a predictive tool for assessing who is at risk for FLD and its resulting complications like liver cancer.

Seafood to Pumpkin Seeds 
Zhanxiang Zhou, PhD, with the UNC Greensboro Center for Translational Biomedical Research,  linked the essential nutrient zinc to alcohol-induced FLD. Zinc is found in foods like seafood, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and peanuts. It is essential for healthy cell division, fertility, the immune system, skin, hair and nail health and brain function related to the senses. Zhou found that zinc supplementation can reduce the amount of fat in the liver, which could play a role in decreasing incidences of liver cancer. Zhou is also studying numerous polyphenolic compounds from plants to find ones with similar therapeutic effects.

The scientists with the NCRC’s corporate, academic and healthcare partners are committed to identifying and characterizing the bioactive compounds and nutrients in foods that can be developed into new, natural approaches to treating and preventing not only cancer but other debilitating diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To learn more, visit

Find out about opportunities to join in the NCRC’s research.

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