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Fructose Linked to Pancreatic Cancer Growth


High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a corn-based sweetener that is found in many processed and refined foods typical of a Western diet, has been linked to pancreatic cancer. Researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center report that fructose can stimulate pancreatic cancer cells, causing them to grow more rapidly.

Health Dangers of Fructose

Fructose, and more specifically HFCS, has been a topic of controversy for some time, with many pointing out the health hazards associated with consuming the sugar while industry advocates say their product is safe because it is natural. Two US studies published in 2009 provide results that illustrate news to the contrary. In one study, 9 of 20 HFCS samples were found to contain mercury, while in a second study, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that nearly one-third of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury, and the chemical was found most often in HFCS-containing foods.

The new UCLA study is the first one to show an association between fructose and proliferation of cancer, according to Anthony Heaney, associate professor of medicine and neurosurgery, senior author of the study, and a Jonsson Cancer Center researcher.

Previous studies have linked fructose with a variety of health problems, including diabetes, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and gout. HFCS makes up more than 40 percent of the caloric sweeteners added to foods and beverages in the United States, and it is the only sweetener added to caloric soft drinks.

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Fructose and Pancreatic Cancer

UCLA researchers have found that fructose activates a key pathway in the body that stimulates pancreatic cancer cell division, which helps promote rapid growth of the disease. Heaney points out that “In this study, we show that cancers can use fructose just as readily as glucose to fuel their growth.” HFCS is a mixture of fructose and glucose and is popular among food manufacturers because it is sweet, inexpensive, and a good preservative.

The UCLA study investigators used pancreatic tumors from patients and grew the cancer cells in Petri dishes. They added glucose to some cells and fructose to others. Microscopic examination of the cells revealed that, contrary to what scientists previously thought, the cancer cells metabolized the two sugars in very different ways. Specifically, the cells used fructose to generate nucleic acids, which they need to reproduce and proliferate.

This finding is especially relevant given that fructose intake has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Heaney suggested that there should be a federal effort to reduce intake of HFCS in the American diet. He also said that although their work revealed a link between pancreatic cancer and fructose, these findings may not be unique to just one type of cancer, and could have far-reaching effects.

UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center