An international research team including scientists from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute have identified that reducing levels of an amino acid called asparagine could reduce breast cancer spreading around the body, where it becomes incurable.

Wednesday 7 February 2018      Health information Latest research

The study, published today in Nature, found that preventing asparagine production in breast cancer cells, breaking down asparagine using an enzyme called L-asparaginase, or putting the mice on a low-asparagine diet, reduced breast cancer cells’ ability to spread. However, levels of asparagine had minimal effects on primary breast tumours.

Asparagine is not an essential amino acid, meaning that while we can receive it through our food – with higher concentrations found in foods including asparagus, soy and dairy – our cells also know how to make it from scratch.

Analysis of patient tumour samples indicated that breast cancer cells capable of making more asparagine were more likely to be found in secondary breast tumours around the body than the primary tumour itself, suggesting the ability to make asparagine can help them spread.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“This early discovery could offer a long-awaited new way to help stop breast cancer spreading – but we first need to understand the true role of this nutrient in patients.

“With nearly 11,500 women still dying from breast cancer each year in the UK, we urgently need to stop the disease spreading around the body, where it becomes incurable.

“That this study suggests reducing levels of asparagine could reduce the spread of breast cancer is promising, but further studies are needed to confirm whether this would have the same impact in patients. If shown to be an effective approach, it’s possible that dietary advice to avoid foods containing asparagine, or drugs that break down this nutrient, could be added to standard treatment to help prevent metastasis.

“On current evidence, we don’t recommend patients totally exclude any specific food group from their diet without speaking to their doctors. We’d also encourage all patients to follow a healthy and varied diet – rich in fruit, vegetables and pulses, and limited in processed meat and high fat or sugar foods – to help give them the best chance of survival.”

Read more about this study on the Nature website.