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Lifestyle Change Works

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Suppress Cancer—Boost Cell Life

A few months back we looked at a study which found that telomere length is equated with physical activity and longevity (#207 in our Fitness and Health category). Generally speaking long telomeres (chromosome caps) are associated with long life. That study was backward looking or epidemiological: it measured telomere length and then looked back at exercise and age to find an association. Now we have two prospective studies, which alter lifestyle and then look ahead at changes. The first study assesses changes at prostate tissue. The second measures change in telomerase, an enzyme which repairs telomeres and slows or prevents the death of many human cells. Both studies involve the same 30 men, who have low-risk prostate cancer.

The lifestyle changes and the men are the same in both studies. But the end points are different.

The first study was led by Dean Ornish, MD, a cardiologist and well known advocate of healthy living (diet, exercise, and stress reduction) to prevent or reverse heart disease, and Dr. Peter Carroll, a prostate cancer specialist. The second study was led by Ornish and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, whose team discovered telomerase in 1984.

The 30 participants (screened from 273) had confirmed prostate cancer and agreed to forgo surgery, hormonal therapy, or radiation in favor of intensive lifestyle change and careful surveillance of tumor growth.  

The lifestyle modification program began with a 3-day residential retreat, followed by weekly support sessions and telephone contacts. The changes included a diet low in fat (10%), with plenty of whole foods, fruits and vegetables, along with stress management, and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise 6 days a week. The lifestyle modifications continued for three months.

Lifestyle Change Curbs Tumor growth

In the first study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 17, 2008), prostate tissue was obtained before and after the lifestyle changes. A “paired-specimen design” was used, with each man providing his own baseline tissue. After only three months of strict diet, stress management, and exercise, the researchers observed a significant change in cancer-causing genes in the prostate tissue. Specifically, they detected 48 up-regulated and 453 down-regulated gene expression patterns related to tumor growth. Improvements in body weight, abdominal fat, blood pressure, and blood lipids were also observed.

The researcher concluded: “Intensive nutrition and lifestyle changes may modulate gene expression in the prostate.”

Encouraged by these results, Drs. Blackburn and Ornish proceeded with the second study. They analyzed the prostate tissue taken from the 30 men again, this time to see if there was an increase in telomerase following the lifestyle change.

Breakthrough Results

As noted above, Dr. Blackburn and her colleagues discovered telomerase, which repairs and lengthens telomeres. (Blackburn also discovered telomeres.) Telomerase is often called the “immortalizing enzyme,” because it promotes continuing cell division and keeps the cells alive.

“Shortening of telomeres is emerging as a marker of disease risk and premature death in many types of cancer, including prostate, lung, breast and colorectal cancers,” according to the researchers.

The results of the second study were published September 15, 2008, in an online news release and will appear in the November print issue of The Lancet Oncology.

The Blackburn-Ornish team found a 29 percent increase in telomerase levels following the lifestyle changes. LDL “bad” cholesterol also decreased.

“To our knowledge, we have reported here the first longitudinal study showing that comprehensive lifestyle changes—or any intervention—are significantly associated with increases in cellular telomerase activity levels and telomere maintenance capacity in immune cells,” the study authors wrote.

“The implications of this study are not limited to men with prostate cancer. Comprehensive lifestyle changes may cause improvements in telomerase and telomeres that may be beneficial to the general population as well,” Ornish said.

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This two-tiered study is only a pilot and more research will be necessary to confirm and enlarge on the results. It’s exciting nevertheless—a powerful motivator for those who strive to eat healthy and exercise regularly.

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