The latest study about antioxidants is terrifying. Scientists think they may boost cancer cells to spread faster.

Since the term “antioxidants” made the leap from the realm of biochemistry labs and into the public consciousness in the  1990s, Americans have come to believe that more is better when it comes to consuming the substance that comes in things like acai berries, green tea and leafy veggies.

A provocative new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature raises important questions about that assumption.

Antioxidants — which include vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, and are contained in thousands of foods — are thought to protect cells from damage by acting as defenders against something called “free radicals” which the body produces as a part of metabolism or that can enter through the environment.

That’s all great for normal cells. But what researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found is that antioxidants can work their magic on cancerous cells, too — turbo-charging the process by which they grow and spread.

Researcher Sean Morrison and his colleagues conducted experiments on mice that had been transplanted with skin cancer cells (melanoma) from human patients. They gave nothing to one group. To the other they gave doses of N-acetylcysteine (NAC) which is a common antioxidant that’s used in nutritional and bodybuilding supplements and has been used as a treatment for patients with HIV/AIDS and in some children with certain genetic disorders.

The results were alarming: Those in the second group had markedly higher levels of cancer cells in their blood, grew more tumors and the tumors were larger and more widespread than in the first.

“What we’re starting to learn is that there can be bad cells from cancer that appear to benefit more from antioxidants than normal cells,” he said in an interview.

Morrison, director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern, explained that it has to do with something called oxidative stress.

Scientists have known for a while now that cancer metastasis — especially when it involves spreading a great distance to another part of the body — is a very inefficient process and that many cells die along the way. This is likely due to oxidative stress, which is an inability by the body to counteract the harmful effect of free radicals. When antioxidants supplements are given, the paper hypothesizes, they may give new life to those cancerous cells that are on the edge of dying.

Morrison said that previous studies have shown that the progression of metastasis of human melanoma cells in mice is predictive of their metastasis in humans, which raises concerns about the use of dietary antioxidants by patients with cancer.

Moreover, melanoma may not be the only type of cancer to be affected this way.

A similar study conducted at Vanderbilt University and published in PLoS One in 2012 involving mice with prostate cancer also showed that antioxidants appeared to increase the proliferation of cells in the pre-cancerous lesions. And another one in rodents with lung cancer published in Science Translational Medicine in 2014 found that normal doses of vitamin E and smaller doses of acetylcysteine, an antioxidant supplement, appeared to lead to a three-fold increase in the number of tumors and caused them to be more aggressive. As a result, the mice given antioxidants died twice as fast the ones in the control group. The reaction appeared be dose dependent with larger doses leading to a more severe reaction.

Morrison said that further study needs to be done to confirm the findings and that cancer patients should still consume antioxidants as part of a healthy diet.

But, he added, “personally, from the results we’ve seen, I would avoid supplementing my diet with large amounts of antioxidants if I had cancer.”

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies were launched to ascertain the effect of antioxidants on other conditions ranging from heart disease to memory loss. Early results have mostly been mixed, but that hasn’t stopped food companies from hyping their disease-fighting abilities.

This post has been updated.

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Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter. She has previously served as the Post’s bureau chief in Shanghai and San Francisco, and as a correspondent in Baghdad.
Mentioned in this story and want to comment? Learn more
1:51 PM GMT+0530
Just eat the kind of foods people have been eating for the past few hundred thousand years. The best thing you can do for your health is ignore any advice from the media or government, that is truly risking your health.
12:28 AM GMT+0530
I’m with Julia Child, who attributed her longevity to red meat and gin.
Thomas Johnson
10/23/2015 10:11 PM GMT+0530
The funny thing is ascorbate acts like a PRO-oxidant in high enough concentrations. This is how it used to fight cancer. The crucial part is getting concentration really high, best with IV or possibly liposomal C.
10/23/2015 5:52 PM GMT+0530
I’m going back to Twinkies.
10/21/2015 11:13 PM GMT+0530
This study focused on people that already had cancer.

Studies which look at people that are healthy, usually find that anti-oxidants health lower the incidence of cancer in the first place.

10/21/2015 3:21 PM GMT+0530
The “antioxidants” being discussed vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene, NAC are representative of themselves not all “antioxidants” as simpletons might obviously do and pontificate about.

There are millions of anti-oxidants with many different modes of action. Some of these modes might in some people modulate factors in cancer spread that are harmful. Some modes of action might modulate factors in cancer spread that are beneficial.

The picture of the blueberries is representative of a very simpleton interpretation of a Nature article that looked at NAC, a not at all commonly use antioxidant.

It is a heck of a stupid extrapolation to look down on blueberries based on a mouse-based article about the deleterious effects of NAC. Only the most simple of simpletons would do that.

10/23/2015 10:13 PM GMT+0530
Is someone paying you five bucks each time you use the word, “simpleton”?
Harold L Evans
10/18/2015 8:59 PM GMT+0530
Actual findings of the studies discussed – some anti-oxidant supplements given to mice with mouse models of human cancer seemed to have harmful effects.

It is worth noting that what treats and what prevents are often different things. Also, these studies in mice studied only a few forms of cancer and only a few anti-oxidant compounds. Also, results in this field are “discordant”; some studies show benefits of some anti-oxidants in some cancer models.

The evidence that green tea, and consumption of fruits and vegetables, have beneficial health effects for most people, is strong, and comes from epidemiological studies in humans. In other words, on average, humans who eat fruits and vegetables more are healthier.

None of these mouse models tested consumption of fruits and vegetables, nor of green tea, to the best of my understanding.

This article is somewhat disgraceful. It is deliberately written to falsely imply a “whatever you thought was good for you is bad for you!!!” message. It is generating the usual slew of “scientists and doctors are dumb because they don’t always say the same thing all the time, and I’m smarter than they are” comments that any such article always generates.

The actual information is interesting and of value, but very limited, and in no way contradicts the known benefits of such things as green tea or fruit and vegetables.

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