Powerful Produce

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Powerful Produce

Pomegranates and mushrooms show promise in cancer prevention

Cancer research usually calls to mind images of microscopes, complex molecules and test tubes filled with elaborate drug concoctions. But scientists at City of Hope also are looking outside the laboratory — and inside the grocery store — for ways to prevent or stop cancer.

Specifically, they’re studying the possible cancer-fighting properties of the exotic pomegranate and the common white button mushroom. These powerful produce-aisle items eventually may be used to deter the recurrence of certain breast cancers in women.

Hormone Blocking

“There are three major types of breast cancer,” says Shiuan Chen, Ph.D., director of the Division of Tumor Cell Biology at City of Hope. “Hormone-dependent breast cancer makes up about 70 percent of cases. In this cancer, estrogen plays a prominent role in tumor growth.”

Estrogen is produced in the body. Our body uses a protein, called aromatase, to make that estrogen. Scientists have found that blocking the function, or activity, of aromatase in the body after menopause suppresses the production of estrogen, making inhibiting aromatase a good strategy to stop breast cancer development and recurrence in postmenopausal women.

There are several prescription aromatase inhibitors on the market today, but they do have side effects, most notably bone loss and joint pain. Also, they often stop working after a while.

So City of Hope researchers turned their focus toward natural products that might act like aromatase inhibitors, but more gently. Enter the pomegranate and mushroom.

Special Benefits

The pomegranate’s jewel-colored skin and the satin-smooth mushrooms look nothing alike, but it’s what they have in common inside that affects tumor growth. Their powerful impact comes from phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals are natural chemical compounds found in plants. They often have beneficial properties, such as boosting the body’s immune system. It’s the phytochemicals in pomegranates and mushrooms that act as natural aromatase inhibitors.

The mushroom compounds also are being evaluated for their effectiveness in lowering levels of 5-alpha reductase, an enzyme linked to male hormones involved in prostate cancer.

Testing, Testing

The mushroom study at City of Hope, under the direction of medical oncologist Melanie Palomares, M.D., M.S., is a phase I clinical trial. That means mushrooms have gone through lab testing and now warrant further research in humans. Phase I looks at safety and dosing — how the body responds to certain amounts of the foods. The chemicals in pomegranates need to be further evaluated in the lab before progressing to clinical trials.

“The trial is not to treat breast cancer but to reduce the estrogen level in the blood,” Chen says. “If that becomes clear, then we can look at seeing if it can prevent or treat the disease.”

One of the things Chen says he finds rewarding about working for City of Hope is how quickly research can be moved into practice to start helping patients. “We can translate research to the patient — bench top to bedside, we call it — very quickly,” he says. “That means our patients are among the first to have access to newer drugs and more specialized treatment.”

— Shelley Flannery

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Look for the pink-packaged mushrooms supporting City of Hope this fall at a grocery store near you!

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