Another Notch in Mastic’s Belt? Mastic May Help
Against Prostate Cancer
In a laboratory study, it inhibited the function of androgen
receptors, which are implicated in the disease
By Will Block
Fighting prostate cancer, having to accept the fact that you had cancer … having to figure out how to deal with it, had a big impact one me. It probably helped a lot to understand some of what people were going through on September 11.
— Rudy Giuliani
hen the man who was destined to become “America’s Mayor” announced that he had prostate cancer in 2000, it was big news, not just because he was a major public figure but also because it led him to abandon his United States Senate race against Hillary Clinton. (Had he won, as seemed almost certain, he would not have been the mayor of New York on September 11.) Although both the cancer and the dropout caused tremendous anguish among Giuliani’s millions of admirers, the important thing is that he overcame the disease with radiation therapy … and he’s back.
Fortunately for Giuliani—and for America, especially on the terrible day that was soon to come—his cancer was diagnosed at a very early stage, by means of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, a valuable but often ambiguous diagnostic tool. Somewhat perversely, one could argue that it was fortunate that Giuliani got prostate cancer in the first place, because the attendant publicity encouraged many more men to get screened for the disease than probably would have otherwise.* The same phenomenon is often observed when a public figure becomes afflicted with some disease—it’s a useful reminder of our own vulnerability.
Other prominent prostate cancer survivors of recent years include General Norman Schwarzkopf, media baron Rupert Murdoch, golf champion Arnold Palmer, former mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, junk-bond king and convicted felon Michael Milken, Yankees manager Joe Torre, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Senator Bob Dole. The senator’s role as a pitchman for Viagra was fodder for the late-night comedians, but it had a worthy purpose: the drug can be helpful for the impotence that afflicts many men who have undergone prostate cancer therapy.
We Must Delay the Inevitable
The list of prominent men who did not survive prostate cancer would be very long, and depressing. Here we will mention only one: Linus Pauling, who died in 1994 at age 93. Radiation therapy had failed to cure his cancer, which was discovered too late. Pauling believed (but could not, of course, prove) that his daily regimen of vitamin C megadoses for several decades had probably delayed the onset of the disease by about 20 years.
Implicit in Pauling’s belief is the well-founded assumption that if a man lives long enough, he will develop prostate cancer (virtually all men over 90 have it). Indeed, doctors believe that it’s not a question of if, but of when. And the only sensible approach to that question is to try to make it as late as possible. Although Mother Nature and a man’s genes will have plenty to say about the timetable, prudent lifestyle choices may make it possible to delay, perhaps for many years, what might still be inevitable. Let’s look at some of those choices.
Good Advice (So Often Ignored)
Here, in a nutshell, is how to delay prostate cancer. (Not coincidentally, following these recommendations will tend to minimize your chances of getting other diseases too numerous to list.)
- Don’t smoke. Nothing. Ever. This is probably the single most important thing to do, apart from breathing and eating, to stay healthy.
- Exercise regularly. This is a very close second to not smoking. If there is such a thing as a panacea, exercise is it. Physically fit men are less likely to get prostate cancer than their sedentary brothers.
- Ejaculate regularly. (Come again?) That’s right—many doctors believe that the prostate gland, as with just about any other bodily component you can think of, benefits from regular use. As a rule, inactivity is an invitation to trouble.
- Lower your cholesterol. The tissue of enlarged prostate glands is high in cholesterol, which is the precursor to all of your bodys steroid hormones, including testosterone—and too much testosterone, sorry to say, can be harmful. It causes prostate enlargement, and although it probably doesn’t cause prostate cancer, it may accelerate the growth of an existing cancer.
- Limit your fat intake. A fat-rich diet (red meats, dairy products, fried foods, etc.) is associated with prostate cancer. And some of that fat is converted to cholesterol. For most people, in fact, dietary fat is a bigger source of cholesterol than dietary cholesterol.
Doctors believe that prostate cancer
is not a question of if, but of when.
The only sensible approach is to try to
make it as late as possible.
- Be good to your bladder. Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods, which can irritate your bladder. And don’t hold your urine for too long; when urine backs up too far, it can damage your kidneys.
- Eat lots of fruits and veggies. Male hormone levels drop with a vegetarian diet—not enough to threaten your masculinity, but enough, perhaps, to lower the risk for prostate cancer, which is less common in cultures whose diet is largely vegetarian. The best anticancer veggies are the cruciferous ones (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kale, etc.). Also valuable are cooked tomatoes, owing to their lycopene content, and boron-rich fruits, such as red grapes and avocados.
- Don’t sit too long. That’s your prostate you’re sitting on all day, and it feels pressured. Get up and walk around.
- Take nutritional supplements. Aha! You knew that was coming. Read on.
A Cornucopia of Helpful Supplements
Quite a number of nutrients are known or believed to be beneficial to the prostate gland. Among them are: the herbal products saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), green tea (Camellia sinensis), and pygeum (Pygeum africanum); the carotenoid lycopene; the red-wine polyphenol resveratrol; the minerals zinc, selenium, and boron; and vitamins B2, D, and E (especially in the form of gamma-tocopherol).
To that already impressive list can now be added (perhaps) another herbal product: mastic, the aromatic gum resin of the mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus. Used for thousands of years by people of the Mediterranean basin as a food flavoring, a chewing gum, and an herbal remedy for gastrointestinal problems, mastic is known to modern science as a potent antibacterial agent that’s effective in killing Helicobacter pylori. That’s the bug that is largely responsible for gastritis and peptic ulcers, and it’s also strongly implicated in stomach cancer. Eradicating H. pylori from the gastrointestinal tract, starting with the mouth, is the best way to prevent these diseases.
Sex Hormones Are the Culprits
What if mastic were helpful in preventing prostate cancer as well? We don’t know that it is, but a new study by scientists in the People’s Republic of China and the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, MN, strongly suggests that it might be. This was a laboratory study involving the use of a human prostate-cancer cell line called LNCaP, which was established in 1977 from a lymph-node metastasis taken from a 50-year-old man with prostate cancer. LNCaP is widely used as an experimental model of prostate cancer, especially in studies on the role of androgens in this disease.
Androgens are male sex hormones, of which testosterone is king. Although they literally make men what they are—men—they have a dark side too: they’re implicated in the development of prostate cancer. Hormone therapy for this cancer is aimed mainly at reduction of serum androgen levels and inhibition of their biological activity. Although hormone therapy buys precious time, it ultimately fails, and the cancer becomes incurable.
Androgens exert their effects on prostate cells via protein complexes called
androgen receptors, which are present inside the cells (not embedded in the cell walls, as many other kinds of receptors are). The molecular interaction between an androgen and an androgen receptor triggers a cascade of chemical reactions called a signaling pathway, which results in specific physiological effects within the cell.
Androgen Receptors Are the Key
Unfortunately for men, one of these effects is the promotion of growth—benign or malignant—of prostate cells. Benign growth is called benign prostatic hypertrophy when it entails growth in the size of normal cells, and benign prostatic hyperplasia when it entails growth in the number of normal cells (the latter type is more common). Either way, it’s BPH for short, and it afflicts all aging men to some degree. Current evidence suggests that, despite the alarming symptomatic similarities between BPH and prostate cancer, there is no causal connection.
Because androgen receptors are implicated in the development of prostate cancer, it’s vital to understand what factors affect the expression (upregulation or downregulation) of the gene that codes for these receptors; it’s also important to understand the functions of other genes that are either upregulated or downregulated by androgens themselves (one such gene is the one that codes for PSA). Toward that end, the Chinese and American research team studied the effects of mastic gum on cell cultures of LNCaP. Their experiments were carried out both with and without a synthetic testosterone derivative called mibolerone, which is worth a brief digression.
Fun Facts About Mibolerone (Woof!)
Mibolerone was developed as an antiestrogenic veterinary drug for dogs, approved by the FDA for preventing bitches from coming into heat. Unscrupulous two-legged promoters, however, have touted it for its ability to boost aggression levels in athletes such as boxers, football players, and martial artists (who are not exactly wusses to begin with). One bodybuilding magazine has described mibolerone as “without a doubt the most powerful steroid that was ever commercially marketed,” while ruefully admitting that it’s extremely toxic, with a strong tendency to destroy liver function quickly.
Back in the real world, mibolerone is very useful to medical researchers for measurement and characterization of androgen receptors in both rat and human prostate cells, because of the high specificity and affinity with which it binds to the receptors.
Mastic Inhibits Growth of Cancer Cells
Armed with mastic (dissolved in dimethylsulfoxide, an organic solvent) and mibolerone, the researchers studied their effects on the androgen receptors (AR) of LNCaP cells, using a variety of molecular biological techniques that are too complex to describe here. Let’s get right to the results, in the authors’ own words:
In the current study, the results showed that gum mastic inhibited the androgen-stimulated growth of LNCaP cells and inhibited the expression of all 3 androgen up-regulated genes. Because the AR is essential for androgen-stimulated proliferation of prostate cancer cells, the effect of gum mastic presumably works through the suppression of AR-mediated action. The results of the current study clearly demonstrated that gum mastic inhibited both the expression and function of the AR in LNCaP cells. … Finally, the results of the current study strongly suggest that gum mastic may have antiprostate cancer effect through its suppressive effect on the expression and function of the AR.
“The results of the current study
strongly suggest that . . . gum mastic
or its active components may be
useful in vivo for prostate cancer
prevention and treatment.”
Much more research will be needed, of course, to see whether these exciting laboratory results translate into real therapeutic benefits in living men. The authors are optimistic, stating, “Because other gum resins can be administered systemically for disease treatments in animal models, we expect that gum mastic or its active components may be useful in vivo for prostate cancer prevention and treatment.” Their work augments another recent laboratory study in which it was found that mastic kills colon cancer cells (see
“Mastic Kills Colon Cancer Cells” in the September 2005 issue).
Welcome, New Kid
Six years after his diagnosis, Rudy Giuliani is still cancer-free, and we wish him well. Unfortunately, though, there will be about 200,000 new cases of prostate cancer in the USA this year, and about 30,000 men will die of the disease. Do not be one of those men! Take every precaution you can to avoid prostate cancer, including nutritional supplements that may be beneficial. There are quite a few to choose from, including an ancient remedy that has just become the new kid on the block: mastic gum.
Is Vitamin D Deficiency
Linked with Prostate Cancer?
Vitamin D is one of those nutrients that get short shrift (what is a shrift, anyway, and are there any long ones?) in most discussions of beneficial supplements. That’s too bad, because vitamin D is so good for us that we should know more about it. It’s called the sunshine vitamin because our primary source of it is the sun, whose ultraviolet radiation causes the synthesis of vitamin D in our skin.
Here we’re interested in the suggestion that vitamin D may help prevent prostate cancer. A deficiency is associated with a higher risk for this cancer, as well as for breast cancer in women, and some studies have suggested that vitamin D may retard the proliferation of certain cancer cells, especially prostate cancer. More research is needed in this area. Meanwhile, a new epidemiological study indicates that low levels of vitamin D appear to be associated with an increased incidence of cancers, especially those of the digestive system. (See
page 20 of this issue for details; it should be noted that the data in this study excluded organ-confined prostate cancer and nonmelanoma skin cancer.)
Also in the epidemiological arena, it’s worth noting that prostate cancer rates are lower in sunny southern regions than they are in grayer northern regions. That, of course, doesn’t prove that vitamin D helps prevent prostate cancer, but it fits a growing pattern that researchers are seeing with regard to vitamin D. In northern regions, many people—especially elderly folks who don’t get out as much as they used to—are sunshine-deprived, and therefore vitamin D-deficient, especially during the winter.
It’s also intriguing that black men have much higher rates of prostate cancer than white men. There could be a genetic basis or other reasons for this disparity, but some have speculated that, because of its dark pigmentation, black skin is much less susceptible to vitamin D synthesis than white skin. Again, there’s no proof, but it fits the pattern.
The elderly of any race are also at greater risk for vitamin D deficiency because they often consume inadequate amounts of D-rich foods (mainly fatty fish, eggs, liver, and D-fortified dairy products), and they may be using medications that interfere with the absorption or metabolism of vitamin D.
- Giovannucci E, Liu Y, Rimm EB, Hollis BW, Fuchs CS, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. Prospective study of predictors of vitamin D status and cancer incidence and mortality in men. J Natl Cancer Inst 2006;98(7):451-9.
- He ML, Yuan HQ, Jiang AL, Gong AY, Chen WW, Zhang PJ, Young CYF, Zhang JY. Gum mastic inhibits the expression and function of the androgen receptor in prostate cancer cells. Cancer 2006 [online preprint].
- Traish AM, Muller RE, Wotiz HH. Binding of 7 alpha, 17 alpha-dimethyl-19-nortestosterone (mibolerone) to androgen and progesterone receptors in human and animal tissues. Endocrinol 1986;118:1327-33.
Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.