B Vitamins in Mother’s Diet Reduce Colorectal Cancer Risk in Offspring

June 9, 2011

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Andrea Grossman

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BOSTON  − Mice born to mothers that are fed a diet supplemented with B vitamins are less likely to develop intestinal tumors, report scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University.

Previous research in humans and mice suggests that B vitamins, particularly folate, play a role in the prevention of colorectal cancer. Using a mouse model of naturally occurring colorectal cancer, the USDA HNRCA scientists examined whether a mothers’ B vitamin intake impacts her offspring’s cancer risk. Mothers were fed diets containing supplemental, adequate or mildly deficient quantities of vitamins B2, B6, B12 and folate prior to conception through weaning after which all of the offspring received the same adequate diet. 

“We saw, by far, the fewest intestinal tumors in the offspring of mothers consuming the supplemented diet,” says Jimmy Crott, PhD, senior author and a scientist in the Vitamins and Carcinogenesis Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA. “Although the tumor incidence was similar between offspring of deficient and adequate mothers, 54% of tumors in the deficient offspring were advanced and had invaded surrounding tissue while only 18% of tumors in the offspring of adequate mothers displayed these aggressive properties.”

 The results were published online June 9 in the journal Gut.

Crott and colleagues associated the tumor suppression seen in the offspring of supplemented mothers with a protection against disruptions to the Wnt signaling pathway, a network of genes commonly altered in colorectal cancer.

“The strongest expression of tumor-suppressing genes in the Wnt pathway was in the offspring  of supplemented mothers and the weakest was in the offspring of the mildly deficient mothers,” says first author Eric Ciappio, a PhD candidate at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

“We attribute these differences in gene expression to epigenetics, modifications of DNA which are sensitive to environmental factors such as diet,” Ciappio continues. “In this case, changing maternal B vitamin intake had lasting epigenetic effects in offspring and may explain the differences in tumor incidence and aggressiveness we observed”.

It remains unclear whether maternal consumption of the four B vitamins could impact tumor development in humans. ““While evidence is beginning to accumulate to suggest that maternal consumption of supplements containing folate may afford some protection against childhood cancers in offspring, we don’t yet have the ability to determine whether the same holds true for cancers that normally present in the mid to late decades of life,” explains Crott, who is also an assistant professor at the Friedman School.

Crott adds, “Aside from the known protective effect of maternal folate against neural tube defects such as spina bifida, our results suggest that mothers consuming supplemental quantities of these B vitamins may also be protecting her children against colorectal cancer.”

This study was funded by a cooperative agreement with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

Ciappio ED, Liu Z, Brooks RS, Mason JB, Bronson RT and Crott JW. “Maternal B vitamin supplementation from preconception through weaning suppresses intestinal tumiorgenesis in Apc+/1638N mouse offspring.” Gut. Published online June 9, 2011. DOI: 10.1136/gut.2011.240291

 About Tufts University School of Nutrition

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight degree programs, which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy. For three decades, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University has studied the relationship between good nutrition and good health in aging populations. Tufts research scientists work with federal agencies to establish the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Reference Intakes, and other significant public policies.

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If you are a member of the media interested in learning more about this topic, or speaking with a faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, or another Tufts health sciences researcher, please contact Andrea Grossman at 617-636-3728 or Christine Fennelly at 617-636-3707.