~ Heme Iron Raises, Zinc Lowers Colon Cancer Risk

The March 3 2004 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the results of a study which found a positive association between the possible prooxidant heme iron and colon cancer, and a negative association between the antioxidant zinc and the disease. These associations were stronger among consumers of alcohol than among nondrinkers. Heme iron is found in meat and seafood and is better absorbed than nonheme iron, found in plants.

The researchers analyzed data from the Iowa Women's Health Study, which examined cancer risk factors in postmenopausal women. The current study included 37,708 women who completed questionnaires which provided information on diet and cancer risk factors at the beginning of the study in 1986. The women were followed for fifteen years, during which 303 distal and 438 proximal cases of colon cancer were diagnosed.

Adjusted analysis found a trend of rising proximal colon cancer risk with increased heme iron intake while the risk declined with increased zinc intake, with both associations stronger in women who consumed alcohol. Zinc intake was also found to be protective against the risk of distal colon cancer regardless of alcohol intake.

Free, not bound iron has been found to cause cancer. Because alcohol disrupts iron homeostasis, it may be responsible for generating free iron, increasing cancer risk. Zinc has known antioxidant qualities, and dysregulation of certain proteins containing zinc is found more often in colon cancers than in the normal colon. In addition, iron can substitute for zinc at a molecular level and may be responsible for some DNA damage. These factors may help to explain the findings of this study. Because meat is a good source of both heme iron and zinc, this may account for the conflicting findings of studies that have examined the relationship of meat consumption to colon cancer.

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