The omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseed can inhibit breast, colon, skin, and lung cancer tumors, and now scientists believe flaxseed may help improve the outlook for ovarian cancer as well. Results of new research show that a diet that includes flaxseed reduces the severity of ovarian cancer and increases survival in hens.
Why are researchers using hens to study ovarian cancer? According to Janice Bahr, professor emerita in the University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences and a co-investigator of the new study, “the chicken is the only animal that spontaneously develops ovarian cancer on the surface of the ovaries like humans.” Thus hens are excellent models on which to explore the causes and treatment opportunities related to ovarian cancer.
Flaxseed is the richest plant source of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Given the promising results from the use of flaxseed in treating other forms of cancer, the researchers administered a flaxseed-enriched diet to two-year-old laying hens. At this age, hens are similar to human females in that they have ovulated as many times as women who are entering menopause.
Hens fed the flaxseed-enriched diet for one year had a significant reduction in late-stage ovarian tumors when compared with hens that did not get the flaxseed diet. Although the hens fed the flaxseed did not have a reduced incidence of ovarian cancer, they did have a better survival rate than the control group hens.
These findings are significant because most women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer do not learn they have the disease until they are in stage 3 or 4, which is when the cancer has metastasized. The prognosis at that point is very poor.
The National Cancer Institute reports that in 2009, it was estimated there would be 21,550 new cases of ovarian cancer and 14,600 deaths. Most cases of ovarian cancer in women are ovarian epithelial carcinomas (cancer that begins in the cells on the surface of the ovaries—which is the type seen in hens). A less common type is called malignant germ cell tumors (cancer that begins in egg cells).
Bahr believes that their findings “may provide the basis for a clinical trial that evaluates the efficacy of flaxseed as a chemosuppressant of ovarian cancer in women.” The fact that the hens fed flaxseed had more tumors confined to the ovary and less cancer spread is important because metastases that occur with late-stage ovarian cancer are the main reason women die of the disease. If the cancer is found while it is still limited to the ovary, women have more treatment options and a better prognosis.
Bahr is currently conducting a four-year study in hens to determine whether long-term intake of flaxseed will reduce the incidence of ovarian cancer. Given that there are no effective treatments for ovarian cancer, the results of this study are eagerly anticipated.
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