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Coffee may help prevent cancer

June 22, 2010
Special to World Science  

Sev­er­al new stud­ies sug­gest cof­fee helps pre­vent breast, pros­tate, head and neck can­cers.

While too much cof­fee can cause health prob­lems, such as ul­cers, the new re­search sug­gests gen­er­ous amounts of it are most strongly linked to low­er can­cer rates—be­tween two and five cups dai­ly, or even more, de­pend­ing on the study and can­cer type.

While too much cof­fee can cause health prob­lems, such as ul­cers, new re­search sug­gests gen­er­ous amounts of it are most strongly linked to low­er can­cer rates—be­tween two and five cups dai­ly, or even more, de­pend­ing on the study and can­cer type. (Im­age cour­tesy one­mhz)


In one ana­lysis, re­search­ers pooled da­ta on reg­u­lar cof­fee drinkers and non-drinkers from nine stud­ies col­lect­ed by the In­terna­t­ional Head and Neck Can­cer Ep­i­de­mi­ology con­sor­ti­um.

Peo­ple who drank about four or more cups a day had a 39 per­cent de­creased risk of oral ca­vity and phar­ynx can­cers com­bined, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found. Da­ta on de­caf­fein­at­ed cof­fee was too sparse for de­tailed anal­y­sis, they added, but in­di­cat­ed no in­creased risk. Tea in­take was­n’t as­so­ci­at­ed with head and neck can­cer risk.

“What makes our re­sults so un­ique is that we had a very large sam­ple size… we had more sta­tis­ti­cal pow­er to de­tect as­socia­t­ions be­tween can­cer and cof­fee,” said said lead re­searcher Mia Hashibe of the Uni­vers­ity of Utah.

The re­search is pub­lished in the ad­vance on­line is­sue of the journal Can­cer Ep­i­de­mi­ology, Biomark­ers & Pre­vention, pub­lished by the Amer­i­can As­socia­t­ion for Can­cer Re­search.

In an­oth­er stu­dy, pre­sented at the as­socia­t­ion’s Fron­tiers in Can­cer Pre­vention Re­search Con­fer­ence last De­cem­ber, Har­vard Uni­vers­ity re­search­ers pre­sented da­ta show­ing that men who drank the most cof­fee had an up to 60 per­cent de­creased risk of le­thal and ad­vanced pros­tate can­cers.

Re­sults of a third study pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary is­sue of the same jour­nal showed a de­creased risk of gli­o­mas, or brain tu­mors, as­so­ci­at­ed with cof­fee. This link was found among those who drank five or more cups of cof­fee or tea a day, ac­cord­ing the re­search­ers from Im­pe­ri­al Col­lege, Lon­don.

And yet a fourth stu­dy, in the April 2008 is­sue of Can­cer Ep­i­de­mi­ology, Biomark­ers & Pre­vention, found that at least two or three cups of coffee a day can ei­ther re­duce the risk of breast can­cer or de­lay its on­set. 

This ef­fect is re­lat­ed to es­tro­gens, fe­male sex hor­mones, said the sci­en­tists, from Lund and Malmö uni­vers­i­ties in Swe­den. Cer­tain met­a­bol­ic prod­ucts of these hor­mones are known to be car­cin­o­gen­, and var­i­ous com­po­nents of cof­fee can al­ter the me­tab­o­lism so that a wom­an ac­quires a bet­ter con­figura­t­ion of var­i­ous es­tro­gens, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Caf­feine al­so ham­pers can­cer cell growth.

In the stu­dy, re­searcher Hel­e­na Jern­ström and col­leagues stud­ied the cof­fee-drink­ing habits of wom­en in­clud­ing nearly 460 breast can­cer pa­tients at Lund. Cof­fee’s ef­fect, the sci­en­tists said, var­ied de­pend­ing on which ver­sion wom­en have of a gene called CYP1A2, which pro­duces an en­zyme that breaks down es­tro­gen and cof­fee. Half of the wom­en had a var­i­ant called A/A, while the oth­ers had ei­ther A/C or C/C.

“Those wom­en who had one of the C var­i­ants, and who had drunk at least three cups of cof­fee a day, de­vel­oped breast can­cer con­sid­erably more sel­dom than wom­en with the A/A var­i­ant with the same cof­fee con­sump­tion. Their can­cer risk was only two thirds of that of the oth­er wom­en,” Jern­ström said.


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Several new studies suggest coffee helps prevent breast, prostate, head and neck cancers. While too much coffee can cause health problems, such as ulcers, the new research suggests generous amounts of it are most strongly linked to lower cancer rates—between two and five cups daily, or even more, depending on the study and cancer type. In one study, researchers pooled data on regular coffee drinkers and non-drinkers from nine studies collected by the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology consortium. People who drank about four or more cups a day had a 39 percent decreased risk of oral cavity and pharynx cancers combined, the investigators found. Data on decaffeinated coffee was too sparse for detailed analysis, they added, but indicated no increased risk. Tea intake wasn’t associated with head and neck cancer risk. “What makes our results so unique is that we had a very large sample size… we had more statistical power to detect associations between cancer and coffee,” said said lead researcher Mia Hashibe or the University of Utah. The research is published in the advance online issue of the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, published by the American Association for Cancer Research. In another study, presented at the association’s Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research Conference last December, Harvard University researchers presented data showing that men who drank the most coffee had an up to 60 percent lower risk of lethal and advanced prostate cancers than non-coffee drinkers. Results of a third study published in the January issue of the same journal showed a decreased risk of gliomas, or brain tumors, associated with coffee. This link was found among those who drank five or more cups of coffee or tea a day, according the researchers from Imperial College, London. And yet a fourth study, from the April 2008 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, found that drinking at least two or three cups a day can either reduce the total risk of developing breast cancer or delay the onset of cancer. The effect of coffee is related to estrogens, female sex hormones, said the scientists, from from Lund and Malmö universities in Sweden. Certain metabolic products of these hormones are known to be carcinogenic, and various components of coffee can alter the metabolism so that a woman acquires a better configuration of various estrogens, investigators said. Caffeine also hampers cancer cell growth. In the study, researcher Helena Jernström and colleagues studied the coffee-drinking habits of women including nearly 460 breast cancer patients at Lund. Coffee’s effect, the scientists said, varied depending on which version women have of a gene called CYP1A2, which produces an enzyme that breaks down estrogen and coffee. Half of the women had a variant called A/A, while the others had either A/C or C/C. “Those women who had one of the C variants, and who had drunk at least three cups of coffee a day, developed breast cancer considerably more seldom than women with the A/A variant with the same coffee consumption. Their cancer risk was only two thirds of that of the other women,” Jernström said.