Antioxidant Vitamins Fail to Prevent Polyps

By Fackelmann, Kathy A. | Science News, July 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

Antioxidant Vitamins Fail to Prevent Polyps


Fackelmann, Kathy A., Science News


Antioxidant vitamins have received a lot of attention for their putative role as anticancer agents. Last spring, however, the antioxidant story became complicated when researchers reported that such vitamins did not protect men who smoked from getting lung cancer. This week, another scientific team weighs in on the question of whether antioxidant vitamins shield against colorectal cancer.

Epidemiologist E. Robert Greenberg of Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H., and his colleagues report that certain antioxidant vitamins offer no defense against developing a wartlike growth called a polyp in the large intestine or rectum. This type of polyp is a precursor of invasive colorectal cancer.

The researchers studied men and women who had already had one such growth removed and thus faced a higher than average chance of developing another polyp and colorectal cancer. They randomly assigned the volunteers, who had very similar diets at the study's start, to one of four groups. Those in the control group received a placebo capsule each day containing an inactive substance. The three treatment groups received either beta carotene alone, vitamins C and E, or beta carotene plus vitamins C and E. Neither the researchers nor the patients in the study knew who was getting the vitamins and who was taking the placebo.

To monitor the appearance of new growths, the patients underwent a procedure called colonoscopy, in which doctors view the colon through a flexible tube. The researchers discovered that more than a third of the recruits developed polyps during a 3-year period. However, people taking vitamins fared no better than those popping placebos: The rate of occurrence of new polyps was about the same in each of the four groups. Greenberg and his colleagues describe their results in the July 21 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

"The findings don't provide any support for the idea that taking vitamins will lower your risk of colorectal tumors," Greenberg told Science News.

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