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Amino acid in asparagus could cause cancer to spread, study says


Are you a fan of asparagus? Beware, because the food contains an amino acid that has been associated with spreading breast cancer, according to a new report.

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Researchers from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute recently conducted an experiment, published in the Nature journal, to determine how asparagine, the amino acid that builds protein, may be linked to the disease. Foods with higher concentrations of the compound include asparagus, soy, dairy, poultry and seafood.

>> Related: New cancer 'vaccine' completely wipes out tumors in mice -- human trials are on way

To do so, they attempted to block the production of asparagine in mice with a drug called L-asparaginase. They also fed the animals a low-asparagine diet. After analyzing the results, they found that both methods reduced breast cancer’s ability to spread.

Scientists then used the mice studies to assess human breast cancer patients. They discovered “the greater the ability of breast cancer cells to make asparagine, the more likely the disease is to spread,” the authors wrote. They said this could also be the case for kidney and head and neck cancers.

>> On AJC.com: Breast cancer treatment may trigger heart problems, study says

“Our work has pinpointed one of the key mechanisms that promotes the ability of breast cancer cells to spread. When the availability of asparagine was reduced, we saw little impact on the primary tumour in the breast, but tumour cells had reduced capacity for metastases in other parts of the body,” the study’s lead author, Greg Hannon, said in a statement. “This finding adds vital information to our understanding of how we can stop cancer spreading – the main reason patients die from their disease.”

In addition to chemotherapy, researchers believe doctors should give patients asparagine-restricted diets to help prevent the illness from spreading. They also want to further their investigations to understand how to make the drug work with patients.

>> Related: Pharmaceutical company touts 'breakthrough' cancer treatment 

“The next step in the research would be to understand how this translates from the lab to patients and which patients are most likely to benefit from any potential treatment,” study co-author Charles Swanton added. “It’s possible that in future, this drug could be repurposed to help treat breast cancer patients.”


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