November 4, 2017

A few details

Seeing a headline like


might cause an unwary person to think that eating purple kumara would reduce their risk of colon cancer by seventy-five per cent.

You, of course, would be suspicious and would want to read the story.

He found that when fed to three generations of mice bred with colon cancer, using the same gene which caused the disease in humans, purple kumara reduced the number of polyps by two-thirds or more.

So, the study is in mice. Mutant mice.  And it didn’t reduce the risk of colon cancer in these mice — which was basically 100% — it reduced the number of developing tumours.

It’s true that the mutation is one that occurs in people, too. About one in ten thousand people is born with the mutation that the mice had — these people have the mutation in every cell in their bodies, and they all get colon cancer if they don’t have major surgery.  And in the majority of ordinary people who get colon cancer, part of the  process is a mutation in this same gene in one cell.  So, the mutant mice are relevant.  There isn’t any problem with the research being in mice, just with the headline. Especially as further down in the story we hear about the equivalent dose of kumara in humans

“To eat 1kg of sweet potato every day is too hard.”

and that the kumara seems to have most potential as a way to produce a concentrated extract.

So far, there’s not much evidence either way on whether anthocyanins (basically, purple food other than beets or dragonfruit) really prevent cancer in humans.  Animal studies such as this one give good reasons to be hopeful; the history of other micronutrient-based prevention trials give good reasons to be skeptical.



Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »