Why eating red meat and dairy could actually prevent cancer

CHICAGO — Eating red meat and consuming dairy might aid in cancer prevention, a surprising new study reveals. Researchers found that trans-vaccenic acid (TVA), a fatty acid in beef, lamb, and dairy, enhances the ability of immune cells to combat tumors.

This study also indicates that higher TVA levels in the blood correlate with better responses to immunotherapy, proposing TVA as a potential nutritional supplement to augment cancer treatments.

“There are many studies trying to decipher the link between diet and human health, and it’s very difficult to understand the underlying mechanisms because of the wide variety of foods people eat. But if we focus on just the nutrients and metabolites derived from food, we begin to see how they influence physiology and pathology,” says Jing Chen, PhD, the Janet Davison Rowley Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine at UChicago and one of the senior authors of the study, in a media release. “By focusing on nutrients that can activate T cell responses, we found one that actually enhances anti-tumor immunity by activating an important immune pathway.”

The research team began by creating a “blood nutrient” library from approximately 700 known food-derived metabolites. They screened these for their effects on anti-tumor immunity, identifying TVA as the most effective among the top six candidates in both human and mouse cells.

“After millions of years of evolution, there are only a couple hundred metabolites derived from food that end up circulating in the blood, so that means they could have some importance in our biology,” Prof. Chen continues.

“To see that a single nutrient like TVA has a very targeted mechanism on a targeted immune cell type, with a very profound physiological response at the whole organism level—I find that really amazing and intriguing.”

person slicing a meat on brown wooden board
person slicing a meat on brown wooden board Photo by José Ignacio Pompé on Unsplash

The study showed that a TVA-enriched diet in mice significantly reduced tumor growth in melanoma and colon cancer, and improved tumor infiltration by the body.

Blood samples from lymphoma patients undergoing immunotherapy revealed that higher TVA levels were associated with better treatment responses. Additionally, TVA improved the efficacy of an immunotherapy drug in killing leukemia cells in patients.

However, the authors caution against excessive red meat consumption, given the known health risks, and are investigating plant-based sources of similar compounds. Prof. Chen emphasizes that the study should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of increased red meat and dairy intake. Simply put, the study shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to eat more cheeseburgers and pizza.

“There is early data showing that other fatty acids from plants signal through a similar receptor, so we believe there is a high possibility that nutrients from plants can do the same thing by activating the CREB pathway as well,” Chen concludes.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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South West News Service writer Isobel Williams contributed to this report.

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