Xiang-Dong Wang, a cancer researcher at Tufts, has spent a long time trying to figure out why carotenoids, the main pigments providing colors that range from yellow and pink to deep orange and red in most fruits and vegetables, seem to keep chronic diseases at bay. When a 2004 study by other researchers showed that eating foods containing beta-cryptoxanthin (BCX)—a red pigment abundant in sweet red peppers, paprika, winter and butternut squash, oranges. and tangerines, among other foods—was associated with a lower risk of lung cancer in people who smoke, he made BCX a focus of his research.
Since then, Wang and his colleagues have been studying how the pigment might work at the molecular level to thwart lung cancer. In their latest study looking at mice and cell models of human lung cancer, published in Cancer Prevention Research, they found that BCX appears to counteract one of the lesser-known abilities of nicotine, which is to accelerate the growth of lung tumors.
Lung cancer continues to be the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and smoking continues to be the leading cause of lung cancer. “For smokers, tobacco product users or individuals at higher risk for tobacco smoke exposure, our results provide experimental evidence that eating foods high in BCX may have a beneficial effect on lung cancer risk, as suggested by previous epidemiological studies,” said Wang, N92, a senior scientist and director of the Nutrition and Cancer Biology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. This better understanding of BCX’s molecular mechanism could lead to dietary recommendations for patients undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer and for those who have survived, said Wang, who is also a professor at the Friedman School.