Over the past few days, people have been frantically searching for clues about whether asparagus causes cancer.
After a study in the journal Nature suggested that a compound called asparagine (which is found in the vegetable) may help spread an aggressive form of breast cancer in the body, searches for terms like ‘asparagus causes cancer’ and ‘asparagus breast cancer’ soared.
But there are a few important caveats to note about this study. For one thing, the research was done only in mice, and hasn’t been performed in humans. Mice are not people, and scientists know well that animal models don’t always mimic the way diseases work in human bodies.
Plus, asparagine wasn’t found to cause cancer, even in the mice studied. The compound merely made triple-negative breast cancer spread more quickly around the tiny rodent bodies. The same effect might be true for other cancers in mice, but more research is needed to know for sure.
There’s no evidence that cutting certain foods from your diet can prevent cancer
The cancer researchers behind this new study said that if further research confirms that the cancer-spreading relationship between asparagine and cells holds true in humans, then maybe — just maybe — they might come up with some new ways to treat breast cancer. Doctors might consider trying out drugs that block production of asparagine in the body, for example, or have patients limit the amount of asparagine in their diet.
But asparagine, a chemical compound, is truly all around us. Humans produce asparagine naturally in the body. In addition to asparagus, the amino acid is in almost all the food we eat. It shows up in protein-rich foods like dairy, beef, poultry, eggs, fish and other seafood. It’s also present in potatoes, nuts, legumes, seeds, soy and whole grains. Levels of asparagine are pretty low in most fruits and vegetables, however, with the notable asparagus exception.
For now, there’s no reason for anyone to change their diet based on the results of this study.
“At the moment, there is no evidence that restricting certain foods can help fight cancer, so it’s important for patients to speak to their doctor before making any changes to their diet while having treatment,” Cancer Research UK’s head nurse Martin Ledwick said in a release.
Some other evidence does suggest that diet changes can have an impact on the way cancer grows, though. A nine-year study completed in 2017 showed that sugar can fuel tumor growth in yeast cells (again, not human cells). But the science on this is still evolving.
This research might lead to better cancer treatments
In the future, learning more about how asparagine works could lead to more effective drug treatments. The researchers looked at some data from human cancer patients, and noted that when breast cancer cells in people can more easily make asparagine, breast cancer might spread quicker and further.
Scientists don’t yet know precisely how consuming the compound influences production of it in the body. But figuring out the best ways to slow internal production of asparagine — via drugs or diet interventions — could unlock new secrets to stopping the spread of cancer.
The researchers also think it’s possible that a leukemia chemotherapy drug called L-asparaginase may have the potential to slow the spread of breast cancer around the body. When they gave the mice the asparagine-stopping drug, which blocks production of the amino acid, it reduced the breast cancer’s ability to spread to other parts of the rodents’ bodies.
Knowing more about how that chemo drug interacts with asparagine could lead to more successful treatment cocktails for breast cancer in the future. But that still wouldn’t be a cure.
“When the availability of asparagine was reduced, we saw little impact on the primary tumor in the breast, but tumor cells had reduced capacity for metastases in other parts of the body,” lead study author and Cambridge University cancer researcher Greg Hannon said in a statement.
If curing cancer was really as easy as cutting a few ingredients from your diet, scientists would have probably already unlocked a fix. Understanding how chemical compounds interact with cancer’s spread is a complicated task, and while researchers are gathering new clues, we’re still far away from a simple solution.