A recent study suggests the growth of breast cancer may be accelerated if a sufferer consumes excess folic acid.
Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is a vitamin that is broken down in the liver into a series of chemicals that allow for the processing and repair of DNA within the body. Cancer is an occurrence of uncontrolled cell growth that interferes with, and damages, essential body functions. As cancer is closely linked to the bodies ability to replicate DNA within cells in a controlled manner, there is a clear need to understand the behaviour of substances such as vitamin B9 within the body. Indeed folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in healthy people. However, there are indications that what promotes healthy cell growth in well people, can also promote the growth of cancerous cells in those struck by cancer.
In the study, the development of breast cancer in rats was studied. Once it had been established the rats had developed the cancerous growths, their diets were carefully controlled, with one group receiving a typical diet, and the other a diet high in folic acid.
The researchers found that in nearly all cases the size of the cancerous growth was significantly larger for the group that received high levels of folic acid as supplements. This is very significant for human health, as patients diagnosed with cancer are often placed on courses of dietary supplements as part of their treatment.
The issue of folic acid and cancer has been investigated before. Some countries fortify flour products with folic acid and others have avoided the practice specifically because of cancer concerns. A UK study published in the Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, found no increase in cancer incidence in a study group of 50,000 individuals. However, a 2010 study did find a small increase in the number of cancer cases in a group of people taking folic acid, in comparison to a group who only took a placebo. The increase wasn’t considered statistically significant due to the wide fluctuations in cancer rates, but was noted by the study scientists.
One of the issues with breast cancer is that it can be more deadly in younger women, as hormonal changes are greater, leading to changes in breast size, and screening is less common, which leads to a later diagnosis of the cancer.
Breast cancer becomes lethal to a sufferer after the cancer metastasizes. At that point the cancer can spread through the body leading to organ failure, or an overwhelming tumor burden, and eventually death. The current study gives no indication as to what effect folic acid might have on metastasis, if any.
Studies have also found that the intake of folic acid reduced the incidence of colonic cancers, a major killer. However, these studies did not look into what happens after cancer has begun.
The scientist who did this study recommend further work be done on the risks associated with folic acid and breast cancer.
By Andrew Willig