Here’s Why A California Court Requires Cancer Risk Warnings on Coffee

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Coffee: life-giver, day-starter, conversation-lubricant… cancer risk?

Don’t pour out your cup of joe just yet.

A California judge has ruled that coffee companies must display a warning that this morning pick-me-up carries a cancer risk. The ruling, levied against 91 coffee companies, specifically concerns a chemical called acrylamide. Acrylamide is, indeed, found in all coffees. It’s also used in industrial processes, like making plastic or paper, and can be found in cigarette smoke. According to the American Cancer Society, lab-based studies have found that acrylamide increases rodents’ risk for several types of cancer when given doses in their drinking water.

A cup of coffee in a blue cup on a sheet of burlap scattered with coffee beans. The science over whether this cup or those beans increase your cancer risk is still shaky.
A morning pick-me-up, or a cup of roasty, delicious cancer? Image credit: acekreations / Pixabay

But that’s hardly justification for making people afraid of their lattes. Acrylamide is not just found in coffee; it’s found in lots of other foods, from toast to french fries to baked goods. That’s because the chemical is produced naturally when starches in foods are subjected to high temperatures (above 250 degrees Fahrenheit, or 121 degrees Celsius). The same process (it’s called the Maillard reaction, FYI) that produces acrylamide is the same one that gives roasted, toasted or baked foods their distinctive brown crust and warm flavor. Mmm, acrylamide.

CNN reports that the California court stated that coffee contains a “high amount” of acrylamide, but it doesn’t seem to be comparing that amount to anything; the FDA currently does not suggest maximum recorded levels for acrylamide in any products.

A 2013 study found that roasted coffee contains an average of 179 micrograms per kilogram (µg/kg), or about .45 µg per cup. For a comparison, another study found that a slice of toasted wheat bread could contain between 11 and 161 µg/kg acrylamide, while a slice of toasted rye bread could have 27 to 205 µg/kg of the chemical. Potato products, in particular potato chips, can have much higher levels — some chips can reach nearly 3900 µg/kg. (Keep in mind that because this measure is by weight, so an individual chip will still have very little of the chemical. Whew.)

The decision to single out coffee, therefore, seems rather arbitrary.

What’s more, in the few animal studies linking this chemical to cancer risk, rats and mice consumed way more than humans normally would get from their food  between 1,000 to 10,000 times more. The American Cancer Society reports that, since acrylamide was discovered in foods in 2002, dozens of studies in people have examined whether eating this chemical in food is associated with any increased cancer risk. And most cancers don’t seem to have any causal relationship with the chemical. There have been some mixed results related to kidney, endometrial, and ovarian cancer, but nothing so straightforward as an eat-this-then-boom-cancer relationship.

In short, as we’ve pointed out before, it’s unscientific and unrealistic to say a specific food causes cancer. The most reliable, proven research indicates that cancer is caused by a multitude of factors, including your genetics and your environment throughout your life.

Requiring that coffee companies put a cancer warning on their product will just contribute to unwarranted paranoia about what we eat. Too much coffee makes us anxious enough as it is.

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There’s a Previously Undiscovered Organ in Your Body, And It Could Explain How Cancer Spreads

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Ever heard of the interstitium?

No? That’s OK, you’re not alone — scientists hadn’t either. Until recently.

And, hey, guess what — you’ve got one! The interstitium is your newest organ. Scientists identified it for the first time because they are better able to observe living tissues at a microscopic scale, according to a recent study published in Scientific Reports,

Scientists had long believed that connective tissue surrounding our organs was a thick, compact layer. That’s what they saw when they looked at it in the lab, outside the body, at least. But in a routine endoscopy (exploration of the gastrointestinal tract), a micro camera revealed something unexpected: When observed in a living body, the connective tissue turned out to be “an open, fluid-filled space supported by a lattice made of thick collagen bundles,” pathologist and study author Neil Theise told Research Gate. This network of channels is present throughout the body and works as a soft, elastic cushion, protecting the organs from external shocks as the body moves.

Theise suspects the sampling procedure used to make slides, previously the only way for scientists to inspect the tissue in detail, did change the specimens’ shape. “Just taking a bite of tissue from this space allows the fluid in the space to drain and the supporting collagen bundles to collapse like the floors of a collapsing building,” he said.

Researchers could see tiny cracks in the tissue under the microscope, but they thought those cracks happened when the tissue was pulled too hard as it was loaded onto slides. “But these were not artifacts,” Theise said. “These were the remnants of the collapsed spaces. They had been there all the time. But it was only when we could look at living tissue that we could see that.”

But the interstitium isn’t just the “space between cells.” Theise and his collaborators think it should be reclassified as a proper organ because of its unique properties and structure which, Theise said, are “highly specific and dependent on the unique structures and cell types that form it.”

They had been there all the time. But it was only when we could look at living tissue that we could see that.

Better understanding of how our bodies work is never a bad thing. But scientists speculate that these useful properties could also work against us, allowing cancerous cells to spread throughout the body.

Theise’s team found that in patients with some types of malignant cancers, cells could leave the tissues where they originated and leak into these channels, eventually contaminating the lymphatic system. “Once they get in, it’s like they’re on a water slide,” the pathologist told New Scientist. “We have a new window on the mechanism of tumor spread.”

With further analysis of the fluid traveling across the interstitium, the researchers hope they may be able to detect cancer much earlier than they can today.

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Australia May Soon Eliminate Cervical Cancer

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Goodbye, Cervical Cancer

The International Papillomavirus Society has announced that Australia could become the first country to eliminate cervical cancer entirely.

According to a new study, Australia’s efforts to distribute a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for free in schools have been a resounding success. The sexually transmitted infection causes 99.9 percent of cases of cervical cancer.

In 2007, the Australian federal government began offering the vaccine to girls aged 12-13, and in 2013 it was made available to boys, too. Girls and boys outside of that age bracket but under nineteen are also entitled to two free doses of the vaccine.

Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of Australian women aged between 18 and 24 who had HPV dropped from 22.7 percent to just 1.1 percent. Immunization rates have increased further since 2015, contributing to what’s being described as a “herd protection” effect.

Coupled with a more advanced screening test that was introduced by the Australian government in December 2017, there are hopes that no new cases of cervical cancer will be reported within ten or twenty years.

The World Isn’t Catching Up

In the U.S., the HPV vaccine is not free. It can cost as much as $ 450 for the full regimen, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, although financial assistance is often available. In 2016, 78.6 percent of 15-year-old Australian girls, and 72.9 percent of 15-year-old Australian boys were vaccinated – but only 50 percent of American girls between 13 and 17, and 38 percent of American boys between 13 and 17 had received the vaccination, as per data published by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

The situation is much worse in the developing world, where papillomavirus incidence rate remains high. “Two-thirds of the world’s population of women don’t get access to what Australian women do,” said Joe Tooma, the chief executive of the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation. “Unless we do something, it will still be one of the major cancer killers in developing countries.”

Administering the HPV vaccine in schools has also proven to be effective in a trial that took place in Bhutan. Offering this kind of free access to the vaccine in other developing countries may seem like an expensive measure, but as the Australian example shows, it could ease the burden of cervical cancer down the line.

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23andMe Cleared to Sell Genetic Tests for Cancer Risk

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Detecting Cancer

Genomics and biotech company 23andMe now has approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell consumers a DNA kit that tests for cancer risk. This is the first time the FDA has authorized a direct-to-consumer genetic test to determine cancer risk.

Back in 2013, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop selling their flagship product: a “Personal Genome Service” kit. The agency thought the results of the at-home test might not be accurate. False positives could encourage consumers to seek out unnecessary medical treatment, while false negatives could lead them to believe they were free from risk when they weren’t.

After reviewing data and research from 23andMe, the FDA is now convinced that the company’s cancer test is accurate enough to receive its stamp of approval.

Researchers know of more than 1,000 BRCA breast cancer genetic mutations. However, 23andMe’s new test will analyze users’ DNA on the hunt for just three BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. These mutations are most common in people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, but extremely rare in the rest of the population.

Extensive research supports a link between these mutations and breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer, so they serve as a solid starting point for 23andMe. The company will likely branch out to other mutations with future tests.

“Traditionally, you only would get tested for BRCA if you have a family history of cancer,” Shirley Wu, 23andMe’s director of product science, told Gizmodo. “We are providing a test people at risk that otherwise would have been missed. This is a giant step forward for consumers in giving them direct access.”

False Sense of Security

Testing for just three mutations does come with its problems. A person might take 23andMe’s test, get a negative reading, and assume they are risk-free. However, as previously mentioned, we know of more than 1,000 BRCA mutations, and this test only rules out three.

“Those tested can get the false illusion that they are not carriers, when in fact they may have other of hundreds of known functional mutations. The new offering by 23andMe is better than nothing, but we need to (and can) do far better,” Eric Topol, a geneticist at the Scripps Institute, told Gizmodo.

Other at-home tests, such as those from genetics company Color, are far more comprehensive, but a physician must order them. We still don’t have an FDA-approved, comprehensive test that consumers can purchase directly.

Still, 23andMe’s new testing kit could serve to show the potential benefits and risks of at-home testing, and it may serve as an important stepping stone on the path to comprehensive tests to determine a person’s risk of developing cancer and other health conditions.

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FDA greenlights 23andMe’s direct-to-consumer cancer risk test

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Cancer screening isn't all that accessible — you typically need an obvious genetic background that suggests you're at risk, which doesn't help if you slip between those cracks. You shouldn't have to run that gauntlet for much longer. The US Food and…
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Bacon? Cell Phones? It’s Rarely Just One Thing That Causes Cancer

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If experts are to be believed, beer causes cancer. So does bacon. Cellular phones could cause cancer, but no one is really sure. So could the fluoride added to the water supply. Oh, and not exercising? Definitely causes cancer.

Fortunately, other things prevent it. Fruits and vegetables do a pretty good job. And so do nuts, according to Yale research published last week. Then there are the things that are murkier — beer could prevent cancer, but then again it could also cause it.

Headlines have been similarly contradictory. “Scientists have linked X to cancer.” We’ve seen it over and over and over. It’s an endless refrain, repeated more or less daily. Take a look at some of the highlights from just the last seven days:

Find this confusing? You’re not alone. And that’s all the more reason not to act on the advice of the latest headline.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America. If most headlines are to be believed, there is generally a single entity of a person’s lifestyle that, if altered in a specific way, can stave off the onset of the disease. However, decades of science have indicated that most cancers are complex diseases, caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors — it’s rarely just one thing in a person’s life that can be blamed as the cause. 

Putting too much stock in these headlines means that you’re probably paying too much attention to an element of your lifestyle that ultimately doesn’t make much of a difference — and neglecting holistic advice that is actually proven to work.

In short: Anyone who says they have the answer — an answer — is lying.

At face value, the science doesn’t appear to offer much clarity. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 300 activities and substances that could cause cancer, and nearly the same number that could prevent it. It is virtually impossible to keep track of all these things, and frankly, it’s not even worth the effort, since so much of that advice is contradictory anyway.

Here’s the thing that scientists know about these studies that the average reader does not: Each study is a very small part of a much larger picture. Scientists come to a conclusion bound by a specific set of parameters that open the door to further experimentation. Maybe an initial study was done in mice — its conclusion could be interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to be applied to humans. Or perhaps scientists found that two entities have a relationship, but they don’t yet know what that relationship is (does one thing cause another? or is there a third thing that causes both?).

If research is going to change the advice that doctors give to patients, the studies need to be validated and their conclusions proven over and over. So ultimately, true scientific progress can be found in the summary of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of studies. The nuanced recommendations that doctors give take all this into account, and are determined by panels of medical professionals.

You know what’s not nuanced, and usually not written by a doctor? A headline.

When it comes to preventing your own death, you shouldn’t put your faith — and definitely not your fate — in the latest thing to pop up on your news feed that you half-read while riding the train.

So, which kinds of simplistic advice should you incorporate into a healthy lifestyle? Probably just the stuff you learned in elementary school: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, and listen to your doctor.

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Researchers Are Developing a New Cancer Vaccine Using Virus-Like Particles

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Grant-Winning Cancer Vaccine

The National Cancer Institute has awarded a $ 2.4 million grant for researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) to engineer a cancer vaccine for animals that uses a virus-like particle to trigger anti-cancer immune responses. While the vaccine will initially be tested against cancer cells in animals, the hope is ultimately to develop a treatment for human patients.

Cancer can be tricky to deal with, particularly since cancer cells are able to suppress the immune system by concealing proteins that trigger an immune response. This vaccine gets around this using two major components: First, Qβ particles, which are the virus-like particles that serve as a red flag for the immune system, and second, tumor-associated carbohydrate antigens (TACAs), which are unique structures present on many cancer cells, but not on healthy cells.

The Story of How Vaccines Changed the World
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When Qβ particles and TACAs are linked, or “conjugated” together, they effectually teach immune cells that anything they find with TACAs is dangerous and should be destroyed. Theoretically, this should build anti-tumor cell immunity, according to Xuefei Huang, the MSU professor who heads the vaccine research.

“There’s no better disease fighter than the immune system; drugs and other therapies can leave cancer cells behind, and then there’s nothing left to fight recurrence,” Huang said in a press release. “Our vaccine would reduce tumor growth and protect the host against tumor development and redevelopment.”

A New Way to Fight Cancer

“If we can further understand the connections between the structural features of Qβ-TACA conjugates and anti-tumor immunity, we can make a sustained impact on cancer vaccine design,” Huang elaborated in the press release. The researchers will study the structure of the Qβ particle in order to strategically modify it to reduce the formation of toxic antibodies and boost the desired cancer-killing cells.

This isn’t the only anti-cancer vaccine currently in development. A different attempt to build immunity against cancer uses stem cells for a more personalized treatment. Another similar vaccine that depends on messenger RNA has already started human trials. Indeed, personalized treatments are a growing trend in anti-cancer research, with one vaccine under clinical tests showing considerable efficacy against skin cancer.

The MSU researchers hope to earn similar successes by first treating cancer in animals. “Spontaneous cancers in dogs and cats provide a true test for the cancer vaccine approach,” explained cancer researcher Vilma Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan in the press release. “This is just one example of the many ways that veterinary and human medical research benefit each other.”

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Chinese Doctors Are Using Modified T-Cells to Treat Advanced Forms of Cancer

According to China’s National Central Cancer Registry, Esophageal cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in China. Like many other types, cancer of the esophagus can be treated with chemotherapy. But, as is also true of other forms of cancer, chemotherapy isn’t always successful. In China, and around the world, there’s a great need for the development of new treatments.

Dr. Shixiu Wu, president of the Hangzhou Cancer Hospital, has tested a somewhat new treatment that takes a patient’s T-cells from the body, genetically edits them to target cancerous cells, then puts the altered cells back. If the process sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because using T-cells in this manner was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration back in August 2017.

We reported on a pair of CAR-T studies in December that used T-cells to fight cancer, as will the first CRISPR trial set to take place in the United States.

The other research involving modified T-cells to fight cancer doesn’t diminish the impact of Wu’s work, though. In fact, Wu believes the study is one of the most advanced involving CRISPR in China. Currently, Wu’s T-cell treatment is being tested on 21 people with advanced Esophageal cancer that didn’t respond to other treatments. So far, 40 percent of his patients have responded positively to the new treatment.

“If they have not received this treatment they will die — most of them will die in three to six months,” Wu told NPR.

There are those, like Lainie Ross a bioethicist at the University of Chicago, who are worried about the experiments in China; primarily because the country’s medical research isn’t as regulated as it is elsewhere. Ross told NPR there is concern that Chinese doctors and researchers could be rushing the experiment along, putting their patients at risk.

“My concern is: Are we really ready? There so much about CRISPR that we don’t understand,” Ross explained to NPR. “We could be doing more harm than benefit. We need to very, very cautious. This an incredibly powerful tool.”

In response to concerns expressed about the research, Wu has made clear that patients are told about the risks of the treatment beforehand — and many of them consent to receive it despite them. “Chinese patients want to be cured very much,” Wu said. “There’s a Chinese saying: A living dog is better than a dead lion. So patients are willing to try new cures. That’s why the ethics committee and the lab are very positive about this.”

Wu has since started treating patients with other forms of cancer as well, specifically pancreatic cancer. “We [are] just beginning. We should improve it to get more benefits for the patients,” he said. “If you don’t try it, you’ll never know.”

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