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This Mediterranean diet compound kicks the life out of breast cancer cells

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Mediterranean food compound makes breast cancer cells mortal.

Researchers have uncovered how the compound apigenin that is prevalent in foods consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet destroys the ability of breast cancer to escape death.

Cells in the body normally undergo a pre-programmed cycle that includes aptosis or dying to makes way for new cells. But when they undergo genetic changes that turn them into cancer, pre-programmed cell death stops.

Apigenin is found in a variety of plant-based foods including parsley, celery, peppermint, thyme, chamomile tea and even iceberg lettuce. It is also found in a variety of fruits and vegetables.

The study comes from Ohio State University researchers who were able to show apigenin destroys the ability of breast cancer cells to halt their own demise.

Apigenin binds with more than 160 proteins in the body that, compared to pharmaceutical drugs, only bind with one molecule. The study authors suggest nutraceutical health benefits may be far reaching.

Andrea Doseff, associate professor of internal medicine and molecular genetics at Ohio State and a co-lead author of the study said in a press release, "We know we need to eat healthfully, but in most cases we don't know the actual mechanistic reasons for why we need to do that.”

Researchers Eun Jeong Choi and Gun-Hee Kim published findings in 2008 that also showed apigenin killed cancer cells, suggesting the compound might be useful for anticancer drugs.

In this study, Doseff and co-lead author Erich Grotewold, professor of molecular genetics and director of Ohio State's Center for Applied Plant Sciences (CAPS) looked at the genomics of plant structures with flavonoids, including apigenin, that are believed to prevent disease, based on epidemiological studies.

The scientists used a technique that allowed them to see apigenin bind to proteins that they liken to putting tiny fish in a big bowl and then ‘luring’ only those proteins that are affected in order to see how they interact.

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Apigenin was observed to interact with 3 proteins, the most important of which is hnRNPA2.

The researchers explain hnRNPA2 influences a gene messenger that is needed to make a protein through gene activation.

One of the ‘tricks’ cancer cells use to thrive is using two types of gene splicing, where one would normally be used.

When apigenin binds to hnRNPA2, splicing returns to a single state which makes breast cancer cells either die a normal death or more susceptible to chemotherapy.

Doseff said the study implies that when we eat normal healthy food, we are also promoting normal splice cells in the body by activating the killing of cancer cells.

Eating foods from the Mediterranean diet that includes herbs and spices is not restrictive and also considered heart healthy. The diet may even lead to weight loss, lower the incidence of chronic diseases, extend life and help women already diagnosed with breast cancer.

Apigenin that is so prevalent in Mediterranean diet foods also has anti-inflammatory properties that provide a synergistic effect, Grotewold explains.

The researchers are studying mice to see if they can find what dose of apigenin is needed to produce the anti-cancer effect seen in the lab.

The study that appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) again shows that food is medicine for the body. Thanks to technology, and in this case, the ‘fishing technique’ used by the researchers, we now know how the Mediterranean diet compound can make breast cancer cells mortal in addition to improving overall health.

May 21 2013

Article updated May 22, 2013