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Research Newsletter-Spring/Summer 2007


Dietary supplementation of mothers during pregnancy and nursing protects their offspring from cancer in later life

David Williams, Ph.D.
Principal Investigator, Linus Pauling Institute;
Professor of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, Oregon State University

Cancer is the second highest cause of death in infants and children, second only to accidents. Lymphoma and leukemia are the most common childhood cancers.

Part of our work focuses on dibenzo[a,l]pyrene (DBP), a carcinogen found in tobacco smoke and charbroiled meats. Our animal studies show that DBP causes lymphoma and lung tumors in infants born to mothers who were exposed to DBP. Fetuses and newborns are exposed to DBP through the placenta and mothers' breast milk.

If a mother's behavior can expose her unborn child to carcinogens, then we suspect that a mother can also protect her child through her diet and lower her child's chances of developing cancer. Our research focuses on phytochemicals (compounds found in plants) and their ability to block the activation of carcinogens within the fetus and newborns.

One of our studies examines the ability of indole-3-carbinol (I3C) to protect offspring from cancer caused by a mother's exposure to DBP. I3C is found in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts). In studies with mice, we demonstrated that I3C in the mothers' diets significantly protected their offspring from death due to lymphoma and reduced the number of lung tumors in offspring by one-third.

This is the first research that shows cancer protection of offspring through the mother's diet. It is also striking that the offspring were protected from cancer up to middle age even though they were not given I3C once they were weaned from the mother's breast milk. The doses given to pregnant and nursing mothers in this animal study were equivalent to about twice the amount that a person would consume if taking a commercially available form of I3C dietary supplement.

We also wanted to look at mothers' dietary protection of genetic causes of cancer in their offspring. Our bodies contain two copies of a tumor suppressor gene. When one or both genes are damaged, tumors and cancer are much more likely to develop. Our research showed that I3C greatly decreased death in animals with one damaged tumor suppressor gene, but it did not protect animals with damage to both copies of the gene. Again, only mothers were fed I3C, and offspring were not exposed to I3C except through the placenta and breast milk. This research clearly demonstrates that a maternal diet containing I3C protects offspring from genetic causes of cancer.

We are also looking at the cancer protection of offspring by mothers drinking green tea. Again we are focusing on offspring lymphoma caused by mothers' exposure to dietary DBP. Our research shows that green tea may provide some protection of offspring death due to DBP-induced lymphoma. Caffeine alone (equal to green tea concentrations) provides more protection to offspring, and EGCG (a green tea phytochemical) provides no protection. Offspring from all the treatments were protected from DBP-induced lung cancer in their later lives (middle age), and EGCG was the most protective.

Last updated May 2007