The Intersection of Diet and Cancer: Researchers Investigate Impact and Potential Treatments

by Ella

Approximately 10 million people succumb to cancer each year, making it the second leading cause of death globally. Despite its prevalence, many aspects of this formidable disease remain shrouded in mystery. Researchers, grappling with this complexity, have uncovered links between specific behaviors and cancer risk, such as smoking and increased rates of lung cancer, or prolonged sun exposure without sunscreen leading to skin cancer.

In addition to behavioral factors, scientists have long acknowledged the connection between nutrition and cancer. Yet, recent studies propose that the impact of diet extends beyond influencing cancer development; it may also play a pivotal role in shaping patients’ responses to therapies and overall health during treatment.


At the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Cancer Center, a dedicated team of scientists is unraveling the intricate relationship between cancer and nutrition. Their pioneering work aims to decipher these connections, offering hope for improved patient outcomes in the future.


“The biggest challenge of our life is to figure out what should we eat,” remarks CSHL Assistant Professor and Cancer Center member Semir Beyaz. His lab delves into the realm of nutrients and metabolism, investigating how the body converts food into energy and building blocks, and how these factors might influence cancer risk.


Beyaz’s research, focused on the link between obesity and colorectal cancer, revealed compelling insights. By subjecting lab mice to high-fat diets, he uncovered that such diets led to lower levels of MHC-II, a crucial tag that marks abnormal cells for destruction by the immune system. Surprisingly, the research indicated that obesity itself was not directly hindering immune surveillance mechanisms; rather, it was the high-fat diet disrupting essential gut microbes, crucial for maintaining MHC-II expression.


However, the impact of cancer and diet varies among individuals. Could certain foods linked to cancer in some cases prove beneficial in treating it for others? Beyaz’s exploration into the ketogenic diet, characterized by low carbs, moderate protein, and high fat, raises this question. While this diet has been praised for weight loss, researchers, including CSHL Associate Professor Tobias Janowitz, are investigating whether it could aid in treating diseases like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. Janowitz’s study on keto’s influence on cancer revealed a dual effect—it slowed tumor growth but accelerated cachexia, a debilitating wasting disease that impacts up to 80% of advanced cancer patients.

Moreover, CSHL Assistant Professor Lingbo Zhang’s research on acute myeloid leukemia (AML) focused on understanding the rapid growth of this aggressive blood cancer. Identifying metabolic genes active in leukemia cells, Zhang honed in on a gene producing an enzyme called pyridoxal kinase (PDXK), which manages vitamin B6 activity crucial for more than 100 enzyme reactions. Targeting this addiction to vitamin B6, Zhang and his team aim to develop drugs that selectively block leukemia growth without compromising normal cell survival.

While these studies provide promising insights, translating preclinical trials in lab mice to practical diet recommendations or treatment for humans is a complex journey. Nonetheless, the collective goal at CSHL Cancer Center remains crystal clear—to leverage fundamental biology research to pave the way for enhanced patient outcomes.

In the words of Beyaz, “Your future is what you eat.” The ongoing efforts of CSHL researchers offer a beacon of hope for a healthier future, where the intricate interplay between diet, cancer, and therapies may lead to groundbreaking preventive strategies and improved treatments for an array of diseases.



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