Cancer may be a case of nature AND nuture: Why it’s time to pay attention to Inflammogens
The New Yorker article “All the Carcinogens We Cannot See” is quite eye-opening. You’ve probably known people who lived a “bad” life, drinking or smoking or doing drugs, to a ripe old age, and then also a number of “innocent” young victims of cancer. What’s the rhyme or reason of evading cancer or acquiring it? This is the question that thousands of scientists engage every day as they test chemicals on bacteria or animals. In the 1970’s, biochemist Bruce Ames was able to measure that many mutagens are carcinogens: if a chemical or toxin causes a mutation in bacteria, then it’s likely to also be a carcinogen. Thus, the Ames test for mutagens remains the standard lab technique for screening substances that may cause cancer. However, there are many chemicals that cause cancer but are not obviously mutagenic, such as diethylstilbestrol (DES), which increases the risk of vaginal, cervical, and breast cancer. Also, it has been discovered that with or without exposure to mutagens, most people have a small number of mutated genes. What is the “trigger” that begins cancer growth?
A well-known example is cigarette smoke. It contains more than 60 mutagens, which are by extension carcinogens. Surprisingly, however, in a 2023 study that examined the characteristic fingerprints of DNA damage caused by cigarette smoke in human lung cancers, ninety-two per cent had the mutations associated with the DNA-damaging substances in smoke. But about eight per cent lacked this kind of mutagenic damage, and clear mechanisms of cancer in between 8-10 percent of smokers is lacking, causing scientists to think that there are missing cancer-causing agents.
Other studies have confirmed that a second agent is necessary to “activate” the mutations into cancerous tumors. In one study, DMBA, a cancer-linked chemical that was found in coal tar, only caused cancer in a small percentage of the mice that were exposed to it. However, after adding an inflammatory oil after exposure to DMBA, more than half of the mice developed malignant tumors. In another study, mice with a powerful cancer-causing gene only developed cancer when they were also plagued with poorly healing wounds, causing chronic inflammation. It was inflammation that triggered tumors.
What does this tell us (other than animals do a lot of our dirty work)? It’s not mutagens alone that cause cancer: in many cases, malignancies are only activated when another environmental toxin causes chronic irritation that catapults them out of normalcy. “The mutant cells just lie there,” according to Allan Balmain, a cancer geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco.. “It’s the inflammation that awakens them.”
Unfortunately, there are a lot of sources of inflammation. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the some of the most common reasons for chronic inflammation in the body are autoimmune diseases, exposure to toxins, and untreated acute inflammation, as from an infection or injury. Then there are lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol in excess, obesity, chronic stress and smoking.
Air pollution also featured prominently in The New Yorker article, and it’s a frequent topic in the news today in expected areas (cities and industrial zones) and unexpected areas (wildfires in the wilderness). In fact, British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, who are celebrated for determining the primary cause of lung cancer–smoking–also correlated the disease to proximity to major roadways, gasworks, industrial plants, and coal fires, and thus, by extension, exposure to high levels of air pollution. Since then, it’s been discovered that when lung cancer occurs in people who have never smoked, the malignant cells often carry a mutation in a gene known as EGFR. Using data from the U.K., South Korea, and Taiwan, researchers found that in each of the three countries, tthe higher the level of air pollution, the higher the incidence of EGFR-mutated lung cancer. This confirms a link between air pollution and nonsmoking-related lung cancer by mutation. But there is something else in the air pollution besides mutagens, and it is inflammogens. Again using all mice that were genetically primed to have EGFR mutations, mice who received larger doses of a liquid simulating air pollution (PM2.5) in their lungs, had more tumors. The PM2.5-treated mice were full of inflammatory cells. It seems to be the combination of mutation AND inflammation that caused the mutation to develop into cancer. Looking more closely at the inflammation, macrophages (large cells that eat foreign particles) promoted an immune response by secreting interleukin-1 beta, a potent inflammatory signal,. If the interleukin-1 beta was blocked with an antibody, the effect of air-pollution exposure dissipated. Accordingly, immune-deficient mice did not have inflammation and defeated the effects of air pollution.
Whew, that’s a lot of science. What we can take away is that inflammation could be the invisible criminal accomplice in many cancer cases, as well as in other diseases. There’s been a big focus on knowing your genetics, and firms like The DNA Company recognize that purposefully changing your lifestyle with better food, exercise, less stress and sometimes specific supplements can mitigate the effects of DNA deficiencies by defeating the accomplice, inflammation. In this spirit, we hope that whether you get your DNA tested or not, you are aware of the air quality in and outside your home, and do your best to avoid inflammation by ascribing to a healthy lifestyle and less stress. These include cleaning often with non-toxic cleaners like TotalClean, changing your HVAC filters regularly, using masks and HEPA filters where necessary, and using bi-polar devices like the Germ Defender, Upgraded Air Angel Mobile or Whole Home Polar Ionizer that can also help purify the air of VOCs and particulates. (For more information about your immune system at a molecular level and specific ways to build it up, check out our article here). The answer to disease, like the cause, is two-fold: take the physical steps you can avoid toxins and inflammation, and sort out the mental toxins (stresses) that cause inflammation too. At HypoAir, we wish you a healthy home and year!