Antioxidants — the dark side

There was (and probably still is) quite a vogue for antioxidants.  They were supposed to counteract aging, vascular disease, and prevent cancer.  So much so that 25 years ago, they were given in a trial to prevent lung cancer.  It didn’t work.  Here are the gory details

[ New England J. Med. vol. 330 pp. 1029 – 1035 ’94 ] The Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Trial (ATBC trial)  randomized double blind placebo controlled of daily supplementation with alpha-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E), beta carotene or both to see if it reduced the incidence of lung cancer was done in 29000 Finnish male smokers ages 50 – 69 (when most of the damage had been done).  They received either alpha tocopherol 50 mg/day, beta carotene 20 mg/day or both.   There was a high incidence of lung cancer (876/29000) during the 5 – 8 year period of followup.  Alpha tocopherol didn’t decrease the incidence of lung cancer, and there was a higher incidence among the men receiving beta carotene (by 18%).    Alpha tocopherol had no benefit on mortality (although there were more deaths from hemorrhagic stroke among the men receiving the supplement).   Total mortality was 8% higher among the participants on beta carotene (more deaths from lung cancer and ischemic heart disease).  It is unlikely that the dose was too low, since it was much higher than the estimated intake thought to be protective in the uncontrolled dietaryt studies.   The trial organizers were so baffled by the results that they even wondered whether the beta-carotene pills used in the study had become contaminated with some known carcinogen during the manufacturing process.  However, tests have ruled out that possibility.

Needless to say investigators in other beta carotene clinical trials (the Women’s Health Study, the Carotene and Retinoid Efficacy Trial) are upset.  [ Science vol. 264 pp. 501 – 502 ’94 ]  “In our heart of hearts, we don’t believe [ beta carotene is ] toxic”  says one researcher.

This is not science.

On to the present [ Cell vol. 178 pp. 265 – 267, 316 – 329, 330 – 345 ’19 ] in which the following appears “Recent evidence ‘suggests’ that antioxidants can also promote tumor formation”

The work concerns an animal model of nonsmallcell lung cancer (NSCLC).  I’m always wary of animal models, as they have been so useless in pointing to a useful therapy for stroke.  But the model is worth studying as it provides a mechanism by which antioxidants promote metastases of the primary tumor.  It is also worth studying because it shows the fiendish complexity of cellular biochemistry and physiology.

The only way you can appreciate complexity is by being buried in details. So let’s begin.  The actual details aren’t that important, just the number and the intricacy of them.

30% of humans with NSCLC have mutations in two genes (NFEL2L2, KEAP1).  The mutation in NFEL2L2 produces mutated NRF2 (a transcriptional activator of the antioxidant response gene set). The mutation doesn’t inactivate NRF2, but leaves it in a hyperactivated state.  KEAP1 normally inactivates NRF2, but not the mutated forms found in NSCLC.

One gene turned on by activated NRF2 is HO1 (heme oxidase).  During oxidative stress heme is released from heme containing resulting elevated intracellular heme lever resulting in the creation of free radicals which are inherently oxidative.  HO1 destroys heme. So this is one mechanisms of NRF2’s antioxidative activity.

Heme isn’t all bad, as it destabilizes BACH1 (not the composer)which is a prometastatic transcription factor.  Antioxidants (N-acetyl-cysteine, tocopherol [ vitamin E to you ] reduce heme levels stabilizing BACH1 (hence promoting metastasis).  Genes activated by BACH1 include glycolytic enzymes (hexokinase2, GAPDH).  So what?  Cancer cells use a lot of glycolytic enzymes even when oxygen is available — this is called aerobic glycolysis.  This is the Warburg effect.

I’m sure there’s far more to discover, but this should be enough to convince you that things are pretty complicated inside us.

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