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The Future of Precision Nutrition

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Many times over the past 10 years, I’ve written about the burgeoning field of precision medicine. The promise of precision medicine was that drugs would be developed to attack individual cancer targets directly, without the need for broadly destructive chemotherapy drugs. With precision drugs, only the cancer cells would be affected and not the normal cells, leaving our prostate cancer survivors not only with no evidence of disease, but free from some of the life-altering side effects that plague chemotherapy patients.

Today, with some exceptional responders, I can report that we are well on our way.  PCF-funded research like the kind that brought  Stephen Eisenmann from metastatic disease to no evidence of disease within just a few treatments, by leveraging a precision drug for a CDK12 gene mutation; PCF-funded partnerships like the one at the VA that bought Chris Seelye a complete radiographic response, and a new lease on life; PCF-funded investigators at The Institute of Cancer Research in the UK, Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia, and UCLA, whose work helps form the basis of drug trials that hold the promise of precision medicine, IN PRACTICE.

10 years ago, this still seemed like science fiction; today it is fact.

Equally as promising, now, is the world of precision nutrition. The same science that allows us to see inside the body – deep into cell activity, such that we can craft a precision drug – allows us to see inside of food, to isolate the elements that make food “healthy” and associate them with activity at the cellular level that not only has the ability to fuel or curtail cancer growth, but possibly prevent it in the first place.

Now, that’s a tall order. And we’re not quite there yet. Why? Because nature’s drugs – plants – are far more complex than the kinds of drugs we isolate in the lab and deliver to the bedside.  Each single plant contains thousands of powerful natural components – not just vitamins and minerals, but phytochemicals, fiber, and more. Moreover, it isn’t always what’s IN the food that’s good for you, but a secondary effect: what the foods you eat do to the bacteria that live in your body.

This is often the point where people blur over. Some folks think that we’re getting too “science-y”; other folks just don’t like to think about the fact that they are a living, breathing, walking home for over 30 trillion bacteria, viruses and fungi. But whether you are man living with prostate cancer or just a food science fan, I ask that you indulge me a few quick examples.

At this very moment, PCF-funded researcher Dr. Karen Sfanos is on the precipice of a breakthrough. She is studying the collection of bacteria in your prostate, your prostate microbiome. The presence of the wrong bacteria in your body can both fuel cancer growth as well as make cancer treatment work less effectively.

Dr. Marikki Laiho at Johns Hopkins is studying another culprit: fat. Laiho discovered that when tumor cells have access to excess lipids, the fat acts like an accelerator for tumor growth. This is just one of the active areas of research related to what we call the tumor’s “microenvironment” that has the potential to influence cancer growth rates.

At Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, Dr. Lew Cantley is honing in on the relationship between sugar and cancer. Cantley has spent years studying a common cancer pathway called PI3K. His research indicates that insulin spikes – created by too much sugar in the bloodstream – can cause PI3K to supercharge cancer growth.

Let’s do one more anecdote of precision nutrition, one you’ve most likely heard of: Broccoli.  Right now, at the edge of the Firth of Thames, in a land down under, PCF-funded researcher Dr. Richard Mithen is testing whether he can reduce broccoli to the essence of what makes it good for your prostate. Mithen has been working for two decades to develop this high-glucoraphanin “super broccoli,” and we’re expecting more news soon.

Whether it’s the microbiota in your urinary tract or the glucosinolates in your broccoli, there is one through line that unifies most modern research in terms of eating to prevent cancer: inflammation. We are not referring to the kind of inflammation that happens when you twist an ankle or bump your knee. Acute inflammation has a beneficial effect, flooding an injured body part with additional resources to help heal the affected area.

Chronic inflammation is different: it’s malevolent. Chronic inflammation occurs when your immune system goes into overdrive. Chronic inflammation is like toxic waste that can accumulate in your tissue, sending out constant signals for help, and resulting in a perpetual, draining state of emergency in your tissue. This gives cancer an opportunity to thrive. DNA mutations proliferate, cancer moves in, and it becomes like a wound that won’t heal.

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Through The Science of Living Well, Beyond Cancer and our Eat It To Beat It Challenge Group, we’ve tried to cut to the chase and tell you what we think we know so far:

  • Avoid saturated fats
  • Minimize sugar intake
  • Eat lots of brightly-colored vegetables
  • Try to avoid dairy
  • Moderate meat (and skip the char)

The nutrition research breakthroughs that we cited above have something in common with your own good health: they required innovation, consistency, and endurance. As we unravel the mysteries of food and cancer, we hope you’ll continue to take charge of what goes in your body and be a food scientist in your own kitchen. For those of you who need a little structure to stay on track, click here for the next 31 foods I challenge you to eat in October.

In health,

Jonathan W. Simons, MD

President & CEO

Prostate Cancer Foundation