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Rewarding Excellence
CHORI Scientist Selected for NIH Complimentary & Alternative Medicine Report

"High quality complementary medicine research focuses on understanding the molecular explanation for how dietary factors influence cancer development and how we can use that information to prevent cancer."

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Office of Complimentary & Alternative Medicine (CAM), which funds scientific research and training in CAM and supports dissemination and integration of proven CAM therapies, has highlighted the research of CHORI scientist Julie Saba, MD, PhD, for inclusion in the National Cancer Institute’s 2007 Annual Report on CAM for Cancer.

“Diet has a big impact on our risk of cancer and other diseases, which makes sense since our body’s exposure to the external environment is greatest at the food/gut interface,” Dr. Saba says.

The research that will be highlighted in the Annual Report on CAM focuses on natural sphingolipid compounds and their effects on colon cancer.

"Sphingolipids control cell growth, blood vessel development, immune function and the cellular response to stress," Dr. Saba explains. "They are made and metabolized by our own bodies, as well as being found in many of the foods we eat, especially soy products which seem to have some preventive effect against colon cancer."

This makes sphingolipids of particular interest in terms of alternative cancer therapies; if sphingolipids or their mechanisms could be harnessed, they could provide a treatment that works with the body's natural mechanisms and could impact the cancer without having a toxic effect on the rest of the cells in the body.

"Alternative medicine in cancer is particularly important because the approved treatments that we currently have are so toxic," says Dr. Saba. "Researchers are very interested in finding therapies to get at the cancer without the toxicity, either as preventative measures or in combination with conventional treatments after cancer has been diagnosed."

A variety of alternative cancer research is currently focused on dietary changes and/or supplements, but what distinguishes Dr. Saba's research in the area of CAM is the scientific rigor involved in Dr. Saba's studies.
"Because dietary sup-plements are not FDA-regulated, all kinds of false information is floating around regarding the benefits and risks of such compounds, so it's absolutely essential that rigorous research that meets NIH standards is performed and encouraged."
"The only way to make significant advances is to clearly define the molecular interactions between food components and the human body," says Dr. Saba.

That Dr. Saba's work was selected, however, is as much a testament to the rigor of the scientific research as to the promise Dr. Saba's research in sphingolipids offers.

As certain sphingolipid compounds have been found to potentially prevent colon cancer when ingested in the diet, Dr. Saba has been researching how sphingolipids function, whether natural sphingolipids found in soy are responsible for its cancer preventive properties, and whether these or related compounds could be useful in treating cancer once it has been diagnosed.

"We are particularly excited about the twin possibilities of preventing cancer by increasing daily intake of natural sphingolipids and of developing new cancer therapeutics by modifying the structure of natural sphingolipids to make them even more potent," Dr. Saba says.
Next steps in the research involve defining the exact molecular configuration or structure of these compounds that are required for them to be effective, and making sure that these compounds, which may be natural or synthetic molecules, can be administered safely and effectively without causing side effects.

"Complementary medicine and conventional medicine are really two sides of the same coin. The first step is to decipher how dietary factors work to prevent cancer. Then this becomes a starting point for developing potent new therapies based on the principles we uncover by studying nature's compounds," says Dr. Saba.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 8:19 AM

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