Two Cups of Blueberries a Day Keeps the Oncologist Away

Lynn Adams
Jun 26, 2013

I have always been interested in the use of foods as a therapeutic approach to the management of some diseases. For instance, drinking cranberry juice can fend off a urinary tract infection because it keeps the bacteria from sticking to the lining of your bladder, or even better, certain forms of Vitamin A can treat leukemia because they cause immature cells to mature. This is why I decided to work in the field of natural products and disease prevention. My studies, and their results, may be less dramatic than the cranberry or Vitamin A stories, but no less fascinating.

I studied a form of breast cancer that has very limited treatment options because the tumors do not contain any of the typical proteins that cancer drugs target. To prevent reoccurrence, women typically take drugs to inhibit the estrogen receptor (ER), the progesterone receptor (PR) and another protein involved in cancer cell growth called HER2. Doctors call breast cancers that are negative for these three drug targets “triple negative”. For women with this diagnosis, there are no current drugs to prevent the reoccurrence of their cancer following traditional chemotherapy. Someone with ER positive breast cancer will take drugs to inhibit the ER for years to prevent reoccurrence; and if the cancer was HER2 positive, there is a drug for that too. For patients with triple negative breast cancer, which is much more aggressive and has a higher likelihood of spreading to other organs, there is nothing to offer in the form of chemical prevention.

I decided to investigate whether whole blueberry powder could have an effect on the growth and spread of this type of cancer, and what I found was truly exciting. In animal studies, not only did blueberry powder added to the diet of mice slow the growth of triple negative breast tumors, but it also prevented the spread to other organs. Studies in cancer cells in the lab, and analysis of tumors taken from the animals showed that the blueberry powder changed the activity of growth signals and the proteins that are important in directing the spread of the cancer to other organs. The amount of whole blueberry that the animals were eating translates into a very do-able 2 cups/day for a typical adult human.

We don’t know if the effects seen in animals would work the same in humans, studies in patients are required to show this; but the results are compelling. Many studies highlight the anti-cancer abilities of different fruits, vegetables and herbs. One thing to remember is that the colors in natural foods are a result of the different natural chemicals they contain, and they all have different activities when it comes to disease prevention. Overall, a diet that contains a rich variety of colors will offer the highest health benefits; and blueberries are one fruit that could contribute to triple negative breast cancer prevention, not to mention a tasty smoothie.

Image taken by Lynn S. Adams, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Stephanie Byng.

Lynn Adams

Lynn S. Adams, Ph.D. is an Alumni Fellow. She blogs about nutrition policy, the connections between nutrition and disease risk, the health effects of environmental exposures and the cancer prevention potential of natural products at Sci on the Fly. If you want Lynn to share her posts with you, follow her on Twitter: @lstedda68.

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Comments (1)

Kendra Zamzow (not verified)
July 09, 2013 at 4:11 pm
Very interesting. I didn't know about the Vitamin A. I've been very lucky to live in a place where I can pick lots of wild berries, catch wild salmon (Omega 3's!), and learn how folks identify and use wild plants (wild celery, tree fungus, fiddleheads, etc). I suspect we will find that eating the whole plant, as opposed to extracted compounds, confers greater benefits. So I'm glad you actually used the whole berry in your studies.

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