Antioxidants aid cancer cells in metastasizing, research shows

Antioxidants may help some cancer cells spread throughout the body and establish new tumors, according to new research from an oncology research group at the University of Texas Southwestern.

Antioxidants, some of which are vitamins, play a key role in the removal of free radicals from cells in the body. Free radicals can cause cell damage and death when left unchecked. Many people advocate taking antioxidants orally to help prevent a number of diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks or strokes, along with some forms of cancer and other diseases. But the evidence that antioxidants are good at preventing these diseases or in helping people recover from them is limited.

The Texas Southwestern researchers used mice that they had injected with human melanoma cells. Melanoma is a virulent form of cancer that can develop in the skin. The original skin tumor is less of a problem than the metastases — the cells from the tumor that break off and enter the bloodstream — moving to a new site like the brain or liver. The metastases, as they grow, are often responsible for the death of the patient.

Science via Shutterstock

Science via Shutterstock

Fortunately, metastasis is not easily accomplished.  Once the malignant cell leaves the tumor it undergoes attack from the immune system. In the vast majority of cases, the attack is successful and the malignant cell dies. But over time, more and more cells attempt to metastasize and finally some do manage to do so successfully, setting up tumors elsewhere.

One mechanism that seems to help destroy these migrating tumor cells is called “oxidative stress.” In this process some types of oxygen species interfere with the normal cell metabolism. Free radicals get produced and aren’t removed.  The cell experiences more and more damage and eventually dies. Antioxidants limit oxidative stress. So having antioxidants present in the system can actually help to protect the tumor cells that break off and float along in the blood.

This was confirmed by researches when they implanted the human melanoma cells in the test mice.  The untreated mice died as their melanomas spread.  Mice treated with an antioxidant had more metastases and died earlier than the untreated control mice.  So it appears that the antioxidants benefitted the cancer cells in this case, more so than normal cells — at least with these melanoma cells. Additional research will need to be done to see if antioxidants will also protect other types of metastatic cancer cells.  Of course, further research needs to be done on this problem.

Perhaps in future studies, melanomas can be treated with pro-oxidants that would increase their oxidative stress levels and work to kill off more, perhaps all, metastatic cells.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • ECarpenter

    You will eventually die, and they will say it was the marijuana that did it.

  • Baal

    There is a growing literature (including several papers from my laboratory) on how reactive oxygen species (oxidants) are essential components of normal cell signaling pathways in a large number of cell types, maybe everywhere. In fact, a family of enzymes known as NADPH oxidases exists for the sole purpose of producing them in these pathways. High doses of antioxidants are going to have all sorts of unpredictable effects, many of them quite bad.

  • nicho

    I have communicated your concern to them. They said to tell you “Squeak.”

  • Demosthenes

    Thanks for this article!

  • Doug105

    With the lifespan of rats and mice topping out at around 2 years it’s doubtful it means much.

  • mf_roe

    Think of it this way, Chemo therapy has side effects, which at some point exceed the benefit. This is hardly the first time that vitamins have been shown to have detrimental effects when used improperly. Anything that is able to cure you can also harm you if applied incorrectly.

  • docsterx

    It’s often a matter of keeping in balance. Not enough can be bad just as too much can be bad.

    And, you’re right, eating the appropriate nutrients is almost always better than taking them in pill form. Remember, most vitamins, supplements and herbals aren’t tested to see what’s in them. When you take a vitamin or a supplement you have no idea if the vitamin or nutrient is present, what concentration it’s present in, are there contaminants in the mixture, what are they, are they toxic, etc. You have a much better idea of what you’re getting when you eat some broccoli.

  • larry longmore

    Life is a sexually transmitted disease that is 100% fatal.

  • docsterx

    See the replies I did above for some additional information.

  • docsterx

    It’s only research in mice with implanted melanomas exposed to high levels of antioxidants for prolonged periods. This research DOESN’T say that:
    1. This applies to humans with melanoma
    2. This applies to humans with other solid tumors
    3. Thia applies to humans
    4. That antioxidants cause cancer

    Now asbestos, on the other hand . . .

  • docsterx

    Possibly. Some people think that the dose of vitamin E was too high and that might have triggered the increase in cancer. But it may not be that simple. It’s hard to draw valid conclusions since the study wasn’t designed to see if vitamin E could cause prostate cancer in humans.

    Sometimes substances have to be taken within a certain window to prevent major bad effects.

    For example, drink too little water and you’ll dehydrate and, if low intake continues, eventually die. Drink too much water and you’ll become water intoxicated, and, continuing with excess intake, you’ll die.

    The mice in this study got high levels of an antioxidant for a prolonged period of time to cause the effect of enhancing metastasis.


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  • The_Fixer

    So in other words, try to be healthy, but not too healthy.

    I used to take a ton of vitamins and found myself generally feeling not much different. It’s true what they say, get your vitamins from food rather than bombarding your body with vitamins (most of which wind up being literally pissed away, as a lot of them get eliminated in your urine).

    I think if a person eats a nice variety of good things, stays away from the obvious bad things (like trans fats), and gets a decent amount of exercise, then that’s about the best you can do. Sure, there are some supplements that can help, but the key is moderation.

    I think most people here likely know that, but I can’t help but notice the plethora of Internet advertising that tells me “Don’t eat this one thing” or “Eat this one thing” to make me slimmer, more muscular, live longer, and healthier. It’s marketing. Antioxidants have been marketed to death, and this data is reason to understand that the “eat this one thing” approach is a marketing push and to approach it with caution.

  • GarySFBCN

    “Long-term follow-up results, published in the October 12, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that there were 17 percent more cases of prostate cancer among men who took vitamin E alone than among the men who took the placebo.”

    http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA401043/Avoid-Vitamin-E-For-Prostate-Health.html

  • AnitaMann

    So, antioxidants to prevent cancer, but after cancer has started, no good. Got it. What if you have cancer but don’t know it yet? Fuck it. I’m putting on my asbestos hat.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Thanks.

  • Indigo

    That’s disturbing.

  • docsterx

    This research doesn’t imply that antioxidants cause cancer in humans (or animals.) But that high doses of some antioxidants may cause pre-existing melanoma tumors in animals to spread more easily. It’s interesting in that it raises the following question: could oxidant chemicals prevent the spread of some types of cancer?

  • docsterx

    So sorry to hear that all your rodents already have melanoma.

  • nicho

    I will immediately remove all antioxidants from the Mouse Chow that I give my rodents. I know they will thank me — in their own squeaky way. Please inform us when they try this on humans.

  • noGOP

    we have only just scratched the surface of its benefits.

  • Knottwhole

    Yea. They told me marijuana would kill me 50 years ago. Still not on any man made medications.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Yikes.

  • MoonDragon

    I eat and drink what I please in moderation (no that doesn’t mean just one potato chip, just enough that a bag will last spousal unit and I a week, maybe once a year.) Something will eventually kill me, but at least I’ll enjoy things while I’m here.

  • MoonDragon

    Life is the disease. Death is the cure.

  • Doug105

    I’m tired of new studies that keep changing things so going to keep my broccoli , cacao nibs and other antioxidants foods, till they make up their collective minds.

    PS, you’re still wrong about Foreskins.

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