Recent findings could explain the link between cancer risk and poor diet, and other common diseases caused by not eating the right food.

Results from the study, led by Professor Ashok Venkitaraman and scientists from the National University of Singapore, could contribute to improving cancer prevention strategies by encouraging healthy aging.

Professor Venkitaraman, Director of CSI Singapore, said: “Cancer is caused by the interaction between our genes and factors in our environment, such as diet, exercise, and pollution.

“How such environmental factors increase cancer risk is not yet very clear, but it is vital to understand the connection if we are to take preventive measures that help us stay healthy longer.”

Patients with a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancers due to inheriting a faulty copy of BRCA2 were studied first. The researchers discovered that their cells were sensitive to methylglyoxal, a chemical created when cells create energy by breaking down glucose. They concluded that methylglyoxal could trigger early warning signs of cancer by causing faults in DNA.

Prof Venkitaraman explained: “Our research suggests that patients with high methylglyoxal levels may have higher cancer risk. Methylglyoxal can be easily detected by a blood test for HbA1C, which could potentially be used as a marker. Furthermore, high methylglyoxal levels can usually be controlled with medicines and a good diet, creating avenues for proactive measures against the initiation of cancer.”

The study found that similar warning signs indicating a high risk of developing cancer can present themselves in people who have not inherited a faulty copy of BRCA2 but experience higher levels of methylglyoxal than usual due to conditions associated with obesity or poor diet, such as diabetes.

The study’s first author, Dr Li Ren Kong, added: “We started the study aiming to understand what factors elevate risk in families susceptible to cancer, but ended up discovering a deeper mechanism linking an essential energy consumption pathway to cancer development.

“These findings raise awareness of the impact of diet and weight control in the management of cancer risks.”

Findings from the team that some cancer-preventing genes can be temporarily inactivated by methylglyoxal suggests that a continued poor diet or diabetes which is not controlled can contribute to an increased risk of cancer.

The team aims to continue its studies to explore new mechanisms underlying the link identified by the study to create an improved approach to preventing or delaying the development or cancer, and to assess whether metabolic disorders affect the risk of developing cancer in Singapore and other Asian countries.

The full study, published in the journal Cell, can be read here.

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