Preventing esophageal cancer could someday be as easy as eating strawberries, according to preliminary new research.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, researchers presented data that suggests eating freeze-dried strawberries is the key.
"Our study is important because it shows that strawberries may slow the progression of precancerous lesion in the esophagus," wrote Dr. Tong Chen, lead author and an assistant professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus. "Strawberries may be an alternative or work together with other chemopreventive drugs for the prevention of esophageal cancer."
Esophageal cancer is the third most common type of cancer affecting the gastrointestinal system. Statistics from the National Cancer Institute show esophageal cancer caused more than 14,000 deaths in 2010 and during that same year, nearly 17,000 new cases were diagnosed.
Study participants with precancerous lesions ate 60 grams of freeze-dried strawberries daily for six months. The reason for using freeze-dried strawberries versus fresh strawberries, Chen said, was because freeze-drying provided a concentrated amount of cancer-preventing ingredients like flavonols.
Results showed that growth of the lesions slowed significantly in 29 of the 36 participants.
While experts not involved with the results say the findings are encouraging, they stress the findings are too preliminary to suggest any strong link between eating strawberries and preventing cancer. Since it's only a Phase 1 study, there was no control group.
"It is therefore premature and in fact not possible to tell whether or not the observed effects were by chance alone and would have happened regardless of what the patients were given, such as sugar pills," said Dr. Fritz Francois, assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
"In our own work with oral precancerous lesions, a large number regress on their own," said Susan T. Mayne, professor in the Division of Chronic Disease Epidemiology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Notions about the cancer-preventing properties of fruits and vegetables are mixed. Some experts say there's ample evidence supporting the preventive role of fruits and vegetables, while recent research has suggested that role may be more limited than previously thought. There are a few other studies like Chen's underway looking at how fruits and vegetables affect precancerous growths.
"[O]ne possibility is that flavonols contained in strawberries and other berry compounds have been shown to reduce inflammation by lowering the level of key inflammatory substances made by the body such as interleukin 6," said Francois.
Despite the very early findings, Chen and other experts say more rigorous studies are needed to determine whether strawberries can be the next wave in cancer prevention.
"This may be an attractive approach to chemoprevention drugs alone or in conjunction, since many of these medications have side effects or it may not be possible for the patient to take them in large enough doses to confer a benefit," said Francois.