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How Red Meat May Cause Cancer

In 1982, Ajit Varki discovered Neu5Gc, a sugar chain that is found in meat from mammals but not in the cells of humans. He claimed that when you eat red meat, the Neu5Gc from the meat is absorbed into your body and that this might explain why red meat is associated with increased risk of cancer. This month, 32 years later, he published data showing how Neu5Gc may cause cancer (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online April 7, 2014).

He writes that your natural immunity attacks Neu5GC in the same way that it kills germs that enter the body. If your immunity produces large amounts of protein antibodies that bind to and kill germs, you are protected. The same applies to cancer cells. Every day, your body produces millions of cancer cells. Your immunity recognizes cancer cells as being different from normal cells and produces antibodies that attach to and kill these cancer cells. This is exactly the same mechanism that your immunity uses to try to prevent germs from growing in your body. If your immunity produces large amounts of antibodies against cancer cells, you kill them and they disappear from your body. On the other hand, if you produce only small amounts of antibodies to cancer cells, the cancer cells can grow and spread through your body.

How Neu5GC May Cause Cancer
All mammals except humans have Neu5Gc on the surface of their cells. Humans develop Neu5Gc on their cells only when they get it from eating meat or dairy products from mammals. When you eat red meat, you absorb Neu5Gc into your body and it ends up on the sugar chains on the surface of cells in your body. For more than 30 years, Varki has wanted to do studies to show how Neu5Gc could cause cancer, but it is illegal and immoral to do studies that cause cancer in humans. Ten years ago, a company in New Hampshire developed mice that do not have Neu5Gc for use in Varki's experiments. Because they have no Neu5Gc, they are like humans and different from all other mammals.

Varki took these mice and fed them Neu5Gc. The Neu5Gc from red meat stuck on their cells, just as it does in humans who eat red meat or dairy products. Then he gave the mice antibodies that attach to and try to destroy Neu5Gc. When he gave them low doses of antibodies against Neu5Gc, tumors developed and grew rapidly. In mice who were given high doses of antibodies, the antibodies attached to and killed the tumors. He feels that when your immunity is working properly, it produces enough antibodies to kill the cancer cells. However, if your immunity produces only small amounts of antibodies, it appears that cancer cells are able to grow and spread through your body.

How Varki Found Neu5gc
Varki ground up cow's muscle and put it into a 20-foot column of gel with a positive charge on one side and a negative charge on the other. This separated out almost 1500 different protein and sugar molecules. He did the same with human muscle. He found a sugar-protein in cow's muscle that was not in human muscle, and called it Neu5Gc. He explains that at one time, all mammals had Neu5Gc on their cells. However, a mutation occurred in humans that converted Neu5Gc to another sugar-protein that he called Neu5Ac. Today all mammals except homo sapiens have Neu5Gc. Humans have Neu5Ac in its place. Read my earlier report on Varki's work (2008)

Varki's Explanation of How Red Meat Could Cause Cancer
Many studies show that people who eat red meat or dairy products have Neu5GC on their cells. Much higher concentrations of Neu5gc in a human's body is found in cancer cells with the highest concentration of Neu5Gc in humans found in cancer tumors that metastasize (spread through the body and kill). If you have a strong immunity, your body will produce very large amounts of antibodies against Neu5Gc and you will kill the cancer cells. However, if your immunity does not produce enough antibodies against Neu5Gc, the cancer cells can grow, and can spread through your body. Varki is now trying to cure cancers by working on ways to increase antibody production.

What Does This Mean to You Now?
Not everyone agrees with Varki's ideas about Neu5Gc and cancers, but there is strong evidence linking red meat and some types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Epidemiological data show that people who eat red meat daily are at increased risk for many cancers, but the data fail to show that people who eat red meat once a week or less are at increased risk. On the basis of this data, I recommend that you limit your intake of red meat and dairy products.

April 21st, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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