Every once in a while, you’d encounter an article saying that eating something can cause cancer. Soda? Makes you fat, causes cancer! Grilled meat? Makes you thin, causes cancer! There’s a standing joke around that you can’t eat anything without getting cancer these days. But apparently, you can. And not only can you not get cancer, but there’s a possibility that you can actually kill it off too.
Doctor William Li gave a speech for TED, after working on some cures for cancer, he realized that the reason why we haven’t been able to do better at curing cancer is because we’re treating cancer too late in the game, when it’s already established, and, oftentimes, it’s already spread or metastasized. Once a disease progresses to an advanced stage, achieving a cure can be difficult, if not impossible. Then he mulled on the possibility that the answer to preventing cancer could be angiogenesis, beating cancer at its own game so the cancers could never become dangerous.
First, let’s define angiogenesis. No it’s not the first book in the bible. Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels. The body has the ability to regulate the amount of blood vessels that are present at any given time. And it does this through an elaborate and elegant system of checks and balances, stimulators and inhibitors of angiogenesis, such that, when we need a brief burst of blood vessels, the body can do this by releasing stimulators, proteins called angiogenic factors that act as natural fertilizer and stimulate new blood vessels to sprout. And when those excess vessels are no longer needed, the body prunes them back to baseline using naturally occurring inhibitors of angiogenesis. For a number of diseases, there are defects in the system, where the body can’t prune back extra blood vessels or can’t prune grow enough new ones in the right place at the right time. And in these situations, angiogenesis is out of balance. And when angiogenesis is out of balance, a myriad of diseases result, including cancer.
Cancers start out as small, microscopic nests of cells that can only grow to one half a cubic millimeter in size – that’s the tip of a ballpoint pen. Then they can’t get any larger because they don’t have a blood supply, so they don’t have enough oxygen or nutrients. So the body’s ability to balance angiogenesis, when it’s working properly, prevents blood vessels from feeding cancers. And this turns out to be one of our most important defense mechanisms against cancer. In fact, if you actually block angiogenesis and prevent blood vessels from ever reaching cancer cells, tumors simply can’t grow up. But once angiogenesis occurs, cancers can grow exponentially. And this is actually how a cancer goes from being harmless to deadly. Thus, to prevent cancer from growing, we have to address angiogenesis.
To look for a way to prevent angiogenesis in cancer, William went back to look at cancer’s causes. And what really intrigued him was when he saw that diet accounts for 30 to 35 percent of environmentally caused cancers. Now, the obvious thing is to think about what we could remove from our diet, what what to strip out, take away. But he actually took a completely opposite approach and began asking: What could we be adding to our diet that’s naturally antiangiogenic, that could boost the body’s defense system and beat back those blood vessels that are feeding cancers? In other words, can we eat to starve cancer? Well, the answer’s yes.
The doctor developed a test system for this theory. At the center is a ring from which hundreds of blood vessels are growing out in a star burst fashion. They used this system to test dietary factors at concentrations that are obtainable by eating. They put in extracts of different foods and discovered that these inhibit abnormal angiogenesis:
For each food type, there are different potencies within different strains and varietals. They want to measure this because, well, while you’re eating a strawberry or drinking tea, why not select the one that’s most potent for preventing cancer. Their dream is to create the world’s first rating system in which we could score foods according to their antiangiogenic cancer-preventative properties, which is what they’re doing right now. I’m predicting that a list like that would be more popular than the glycemic index, what do you think?