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Mom's fatty diet may induce child's cancer.

Mom's fatty diet may induce child's cancer

Comparisons of populations with widely divergent patterns of fat consumption have long suggested a link between high-fat diets and certain cancers of the female reproductive system. Yet scientists have also observed that women who switch to low-fat diets don't appear to lower their risk of developing such cancers.

A provocative new animal study now points to a possible explanation: that a woman's dietary risk of developing these cancers may be established before birth by what her mother ate during pregnancy.

Bruce E. Walker, an anatomist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, reared female mice from the onset of sexual maturity through their first pregnancy. Each mouse ate one of four diets differing primarily in the proportion of calories derived from fat -- Roughly 6, 20, 37 or 49 percent. (The typical American diet derives about 38 percent of its calories from fat.) Half the animals in each dietary group also received diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug that gained notoriety when researchers linked it with reproductive cancers in the daughters of women who had taken it during pregnancy. From birth, the female offspring of each group received a low-fat diet without DES.

Having chosen a mouse strain known for its inherent tendency to develop reproductive tumors even without environmental triggers, Walker wasn't surprised when about 10 percent of the daughters of the two low-fat control groups -- the mothers getting no DES--developed such tumors. But he admits to being "quite surprised" when fully half the daughters of the mice on the high-fat but DES-free regimens developed breast, ovarian, uterine and even pituitary cancers, reflecting a fat-related fivefold increase in risk. The only reason he fed some mice DES, he explains, was that he thought any fat effect would be "too subtle" to detect without it. "As it turned out, [the fat effect] was more pronounced than the multi-generational effect of DES," he says. Among daughters of DES-treated mice, Walker found a fat-linked doubling in the risk of reproductive cancers, with the incidence reaching 58 percent in offspring of the high-fat groups.

Moreover, he reports in the Jan. 3 JOURNAL OF THE NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE, 10 of the 98 cancers among offspring of mice on the high-fat diets -- including many whose mothers received no DES -- spread to other organs. "I've worked with terminally ill mice of this strain for a good number of years in my other DES experiments," he told SCIENCE NEWS. "And though we've looked for metastatic tumors, we've almost never found them. . . . Encountering so many here -- and all among the high-fat groups -- was quite a dramatic contrast."

Clement Ip, an experimental nutritionist at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffaclo, N.Y., describes the experiments as original and "good" but says Walker's finding that maternal diet affects offspring cancer risk "is not conceptually new." About five years ago, Ip says, researchers showed a similar increase in chemically induced breast cancers among the daughters of animals fed a high-protein diet.

Though the new study doesn't reveal a mechanism to explain the observed link, Walker speculates that a pregnant mother's high-fat diet might lead to abnormal development of the fetus' hypothalamus "and alter [its] programming" for the release of certain hormones later in life--hormones that other researchers have linked with these cancers.

Reproductive-system cancers are the leading killers of U.S. women aged 35 to 74, Walker says. This, coupled with his new data, suggests "there is no justification for high-fat diets during pregnancy," he contends.
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Author:Raloff, J.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 6, 1990
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