Do genes influence cancer? Research directions: part 1 of 3 with Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN

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Epigenetic mechanisms

Research directions: part 1 of 3—Do genes influence cancer?

Karen Collins has been the Nutrition Advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research over 25 years. I had the privilege of interviewing her for a series of videos on nutrition and cancer. The first interview focused on some myths and known causes of cancer. This is the first of three interviews about new research directions. (To view the video, scroll to the bottom or click here.)

Neily: I want to talk about a couple of the new research directions in cancer prevention.  So, let’s talk about the first one, which is what?
Karen Well, really the change in how we view the role of our genes (inherited traits/heredity) in cancer risks. For many people they have the sense that cancer may run in the family and that determines their risk.
Neily: Yes, I hear that a lot.
Karen And that, we’ve known for a long time, isn’t true.
Neily: Really.
Karen Despite what people hear or think, actually, your genes (inherited traits/heredity) may pose 5 – 10% of your risk of cancer. By far the majority of it seems that, if anything, genetics (inherited traits/heredity) is just giving you susceptibility that some people might be more sensitive. Much more important is the influence of your lifestyle habits that influence your cancer risk.
Neily: Okay.
Karen: Now what we are learning is that actually one of the ways that lifestyle habits interact with your genes is that they can actually change the expression of certain genes. We have this very intricate pattern of proteins that regulate as messengers, how cells grow or don’t grow and what happens to them. Whether those rich proteins are produced is determined by your genes. But it’s not just having the gene it turns out—it’s whether that gene is turned on or whether you have the gene but it’s just sitting there. And so part of how cancer risk seems to evolve over the course of a lifetime is that sometimes genes that are protective and should be keeping cell growth normal and getting these abnormal cells to self-destruct get turned off over time. Healthy eating it seems can actually turn them back on.
Neily: Healthy eating consisting of…
Karen: Well, it seems to be lots of different things that could influence this but so far what we found is that several compounds in plant foods like the allium compounds found in onion and garlic and a compound called isothiocyanates that are in cruciferous vegetables.
Neily: Cruciferous, I know those are cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts…

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Karen: Yes, kale and bok choy—there are lots of them. It’s all in that family and what’s unique about them are these particular compounds called isothiocyanates. They seem to interact with the expression of these genes. So we need much more work to identify how that really happens and so forth but it’s really an exciting field now—not just what your genes are, it’s how they are expressed and the positive message that on an ongoing basis that they get turned once and you’re done that’s why healthy eating all the time is important because at any age you can still turn those genes that have gotten turned off back on.
Neily: So despite a lifetime of really bad eating habits we can turn that around by making   changes. Good to know. Excellent. So that’s the first one. We’ll come back to the second one in another video. This is Neily on Nutrition and we’ll see you in the next video.


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