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BYU researcher: caffeine may aid spread of cancer

A new study by a BYU researcher suggests that caffeine may act as an advocate to cancer cells, extending their lives and allowing them to spread.

Microbiologist Kim O'Neill - in a report published in the December 1997 issue of Cancer Letters, an international scientific journal - found that while caffeine does not damage healthy cells, it may protect cancer cells from death.Dr. O'Neill of BYU's Cancer Research Center said inherent in virtually every cell is the ability to commit cellular suicide. "If a cell becomes damaged or is disfunctional or has problems then the cell has the ability to eliminate itself," he explained.

One of the body's main defense mechanisms, the process of apoptosis - "cell suicide" - helps eliminate damaged cells before they threaten the body. Virtually every cell in the body is pre-programmed to undergo apoptosis when DNA - the genetic blueprint that is contained within cells - is damaged, or when the cell is no longer needed.

"Cancer is a disease where cell division has gone out of control. In some cases, the cell does not know how to die. We have found that caffeine may inhibit the apoptotic mechanism - the cell's own defensive mechanism - and keep damaged cells alive when they should die," said Dr. O'Neill, a member of the Timpanogos Park 7th Ward, Orem Utah North Stake.

He added that, in preliminary tests, caffeine "allowed damaged cells to continue to replicate and divide." If the cell is not allowed to undergo apoptosis, then cancerous cells may be allowed to spread, and pre-cancerous cells may be allowed to progress.

"If you had, for example, a damaged pre-cancerous cell and the cell is saying `I've gotta die, I've gotta die,' and you stop the method by which it can die, then there's a chance that the cell will become cancerous," explained Dr. O'Neill.

He said the conclusions of his research on the effects of caffeine on cells coincides with the conclusions of other researchers across the country. He noted one study, in particular, found that caffeine affects the ability of cells to repair DNA.

For the caffeine tests, Dr. O'Neill dosed leukemia cells with caffeine and then followed a common heat shock procedure designed to induce cell death. Under normal conditions, the test would show breaks in the DNA, followed by a sequence of events that lead to cell death. But when the cancer cells were boosted with caffeine before receiving the deadly heat shock, they refused to die.

"Normally by exposing cells to heat shock for about an hour, 12 hours later those cells will undergo apoptotic death," he said. "By adding caffeine to the medium, you prevent the death of the cancer cells and therefore give them protection against this programmed cell death. Since they appear unaffected by the heat shock, the cancerous cells can continue to replicate."

Dr. O'Neill said even though his study substantiates the Church's Word of Wisdom, he did not set out to prove this religious principle. He said he was just conducting basic scientific research and happened to select caffeine as a subject.

But, he added, "it is pretty obvious that the Word of Wisdom is an excellent revelation given by God to protect His people."

Basically, Dr. O'Neill explained, his research is adding further understanding to the argument that caffeine is dangerous to the body.

"If people want to prove the Word of Wisdom all they have to do is follow it," he said. "By doing so they will find they will have greater health. The Word of Wisdom doesn't need me to prove it right."