Popular vitamin supplement carries increased cancer risk, scientists warn

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Take a long hard look at your medicine cabinet. It may be time to throw a few bottles out. New research from the University of Missouri-Columbia indicates the popular dietary supplement nicotinamide riboside (NR) may promote an increased risk of cancer, and may even cause cancer to metastasize or spread to the brain.

Prior research had suggested that nicotinamide riboside, a source of vitamin B3, may benefit cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurological health. NR supplements have claimed to provide extra energy, increased physical performances, and even anti-aging effects. This latest study serves as a strong motivator to leave this supplement on the shelf.

The international research team behind these findings, led by Elena Goun, an associate professor of chemistry at MU, uncovered that high levels of NR appear to increase the risk of triple-negative breast cancer. Additionally, lots of NR also appears capable of promoting brain metastasis – which is a fatal development for most patients. Prof. Goun explains that there are currently no viable treatments for brain cancer metastasis.

“Some people take them [vitamins and supplements] because they automatically assume that vitamins and supplements only have positive health benefits, but very little is known about how they actually work,” Prof. Goun says in a university release. “Because of this lack of knowledge, we were inspired to study the basic questions surrounding how vitamins and supplements work in the body.”

When Prof. Goun’s 59-year-old father passed away only three months after being diagnosed with colon cancer, she decided to pursue a stronger scientific understanding of cancer’s “metabolism,” or the energy through which cancer spreads in the body. Nicotinamide riboside is known to help increase cellular energy levels, and cancer cells feed off of cellular energy via their increased metabolism. So, Prof. Goun hypothesized it may be a good idea to investigate nicotinamide riboside’s role in the development and spread of cancer.

“Our work is especially important given the wide commercial availability and a large number of ongoing human clinical trials where NR is used to mitigate the side effects of cancer therapy in patients,” she notes.

“While NR is already being widely used in people and is being investigated in so many ongoing clinical trials for additional applications, much of how NR works is a black box — it’s not understood,” Prof. Goun continues. “So that inspired us to come up with this novel imaging technique based on ultrasensitive bioluminescent imaging that allows quantification of NR levels in real time in a non-invasive manner. The presence of NR is shown with light, and the brighter the light is, the more NR is present.”

During an animal study, the bioluminescent imaging technology made it possible to compare and examine precisely how much nicotinamide riboside was present in cancer cells, T cells, and healthy tissues.

All in all, study authors say that their work stresses the need for careful investigations of potential side effects for all supplements similar to NR. It’s especially important that these investigations be performed before these products become available to the general public. Moving forward, Prof. Goun wants to uncover further information that can help develop more effective cancer treatments. The key, she believes, is to approach it from a personalized medicine standpoint.

“Not all cancers are the same in every person, especially from the standpoint of metabolic signatures,” Prof. Goun concludes. “Often times cancers can even change their metabolism before or after chemotherapy.”

The study is published in Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

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