Can an Essential Micronutrient Cause Cancer?
Iron is an essential nutrient our bodies need for normal processes, such as formation of red blood cells.
A lack of iron in our diets can lead to anemia, a very common medical condition, It’s so common, in fact, that most studies about iron in the public health sector historically were related to iron deficiency.
But now we know that having too much iron in your system is a risk factor for cancer, including colorectal cancer and there is growing evidence that iron-rich red and processed meats are associated with carcinogenesis. Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society lists colorectal cancer as the third most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
Which brings up the question: Should we avoid red meat?
“It’s all about balance,” says Xiang Xue, PhD, an assistant professor in UNM’s Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. “Everyone needs iron in their diet, but in moderation.”
Xue’s laboratory studies the molecular mechanisms that underlie inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer.
“The two conditions are connected,” he explains. “A patient with inflammatory bowel disease has high risk to get colorectal cancer.”
Xue’s laboratory uses cell lines, animal models, patient tissues and molecular and biochemical approaches to understand the link between nutrient homeostasis, inflammation and cancer. He particularly wants to decipher the different roles of iron.
Current research suggests that iron metabolism is involved in tumor growth. That may be because cancer cells are addicted to iron, Xue says.
“Iron can be involved in every hallmark of cancer,” he says, “but the molecular mechanisms involved are not fully understood.” Understanding those mechanisms are the main goal of his research.
Xue received his PhD in pharmacology and toxicology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His interest in colon cancer started with his postdoctoral work in the University of Michigan.
“My PhD was in toxicology, but I was always interested in cancer,” he says, “that’s why I applied to postdocs that studied cancer biology, and that’s how I got to the United States.”
Since joining UNM’s Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology last year, he has already assembled a large research team, including a postdoctoral fellow, two graduate students and several undergraduates. He’s currently looking for more graduate students to join his team.
Meanwhile, Xue says, the transition from snowy Michigan to sunny Albuquerque has been smooth. “The weather is very nice here,” he says.