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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Will the Year of the Horse Change Nutrition Headlines?

By Michael McBurney

2013 was the Year of the Snake; characterized by malevolence, cattiness and mystery. Hopefully 2014, the Year of the Horse, will bring a new era of nutrition and science communication. What is my issue you may ask?

The Chinese zodiac claims 2014 to be the year people stick to their principles and stand firm. It is time for scientists, and the media, to stick to their principles and engage in responsible translation of nutrition research to the public.

Mechanistic studies using transgenic mouse models, i.e. genetically modified organism (GMO), and pharmacologic doses of vitamin E should not generate headlines such as “Vitamin E, Other Antioxidants, Linked to Lung Cancer” or “Does Vitamin E FUEL cancer in smokers? Supplements may speed growth of tumours”or “Vitamin supplements speed up cancer”.

Sayin and colleagues may believe their results are relevant to humans, after all this thesis was probably the basis of their funding application, but it isn’t scientifically sound to extrapolate data derived from a cancer-susceptible animal model to humans. And I won’t address the absurd concept of nutritionally healthy smoking. Hopefully, journalists will report the facts, without editorializing or extrapolating in 2014.

Turning to the editorial process of peer-reviewed journals. Peer review is supposed to be impartial. It is supposed to help identify weaknesses in design and to maintain standards  - within the field and of the journal. It isn’t a very high standard to publish this statement

Consequently, popular wisdom – supported by numerous cellular and preclinical studies – holds that antioxidants protect against cancer (2-4)

when the 3 citations do not even involve preclinical studies. It would be good science writing, reviewing and editing to ensure that statements are properly cited. If alluding to preclinical studies, it is appropriate to cite a meta-analysis of antioxidant supplementation on mortality and health (Biesalski et al., 2010) or a clinical trial which confirms the safety of pharmacologic doses of vitamin E (Dysken et al., 2014). Scientists, reviewers, and editors need to stick to the facts, the citable facts, in 2014.

It is my hope that if this study had been published in the Year of the Horse, rather than the Year of the Snake, the message being shared about this study using a GMO animal model would be that found in the Council for Responsible Nutrition press release:

For the average healthy person taking vitamins, this study is irrelevant.

Main Citation

Sayin VI, Ibrahim MX, Larsson E, Nilsson JA, Lindahl P, Bergo MO. Antioxidants accelerate lung cancer progression in mice. 2014 Science Transl Med doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3007653

Other Citations

Biesalski HK, Grune T, Tinz J, Zollner I, Blumberg JB. Reexamination of a meta-analysis of the effect of antioxidant supplementation on mortality and health in randomized trials. 2010 Nutrients doi:10.3390/nu2090929

Dysken MW, Sano M, Asthana S, Vertrees JE, Pallaki M, Llorente M, Love S, Schellenberg GD, McCarten JR, Malphurs J, Prieto S, Chen P, Loreck DJ, Trapp G, Bakshi RS, Mintzer JE, Heidebrink JL, Vidal-Cardona A, Arroyo LM, Cruz AR, Zachariah S, Kowall NW, Chopra MP, Craft S, Thielke S, Turvey CL, Woodman C, Monnell KA, Gordon K, Tomaska J, Segal Y, Peduzzi PN, Guarino PD. 2014 Effect of vitamin E and memantine on functional decline in Alzheimer Disease: The TEAM-AD VA Cooperative Randomized Trial. 2014 JAMA doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.282834