MnSOD, Carotenoids & Prostate Cancer – “You are what you eat” depends on who you are.

22 02 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen you type Cancer Food Prevention in Google you get about 9 million hits, many of them dotcom sites telling you which nutrients, pills or extracts you should take to prevent cancer. Much of this information is unreliable at least.

Although it is true that numerous observational studies (cohort and case-control) do indicate a relationship between diet and cancer incidence, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact nutrients that may be responsible for a beneficial effect. Furthermore, as explained in “The Best Study Design for Dummies” observational studies provide weaker empirical evidence than RCT’s (randomized controlled trials).

For prostate cancer observational (and preclinical) data indicate that diets high in cruciferous vegetables, soy lecithins and other phytoestrogens, vitamins E and C, lycopene, Selenium, green tea (to name a few) are associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer [1].

However, recent randomized trials did not confirm positive effects of vitamin E and C and Selenium (see previous post on the negative SELECT and the PHS II-trial) and data from the PLCO (Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, Ovarian) Trial [2] suggest that the benefit of lycopene (a powerful anti-oxidant that gives tomatoes their red color) is small and that beta-carotene, an antioxidant related to lycopene, even increases the risk for aggressive prostate cancer.


There may be many reasons why these results discords with the many observational studies performed (3)

  • Earlier positive observational studies have less methodological rigor than (large) RCT’s. In controlled trials, the random assignment of subjects to the intervention eliminates the problems of dietary recall and controls the effects of confounding factors.
  • RCT’s test one or two nutrients in isolation and sometimes in high doses assuming that a single compound may reproduce the beneficial effects of the whole foods.
  • RCT’s are often not stratisfied, differences between individuals are often not taken into account.

That this may be important is shown in a recent study on the manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD) polymorfism, prostate cancer and lycopene (4)

The manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD) gene encodes an antioxidant enzyme (SOD2) that may protect cells from oxidative damage (which may play an important role in prostatic carcinogenesis). A polymorphism [valine (V) -> alanine (A)] of MnSOD has been recently associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer.

The present study performed by Mikhak et al was a nested case-control study in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) with 612 incident prostate cancer cases and 612 matched controls.

The study not only investigates the role of the MnSOD gene Ala16Val polymorphism in prostate cancer risk, but also measures its interactions with baseline plasma carotenoid concentrations.

In line with several other studies (5), no overall association between MnSOD polymorphism and prostate cancer risk was found. However, a 3-fold [95% confidence interval: 1.37-7.02] increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer was observed among men with the Ala/Ala genotype in the presence of low long-term lycopene status (P-value, test for interaction = 0.02) as compared with men with the Ala/Val+Val/Val genotypes with low long-term lycopene status. In other words when the lycopene blood level is low, the Ala/Ala genotype confers a higher risk of aggressive prostate cancer compared with individuals with the other genotypes.

These results are consistent with findings from an earlier study (6) that reported when total antioxidant status is low, the MnSOD Ala/Ala genotype may be associated with an increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer. In contrast, men with the Val allele were much less sensitive for prediagnostic plasma levels of the anti-oxidants selenium, lycopene and {alpha}-tocopherol.

Thus reasoned the other way around: the anticancer effects of supplemented lycopene and other anti-oxidants may depend on the the MnSOD genotype and the levels of both endogenous and exogenous antioxidants. Similarly, a positive effect of {alpha}-tocopherol (vitamin E) observed in earlier trials appeared to be limited to smokers and/or people with low basal levels of vitamin E (see previous post).


  1. E-medicine/Medscape: prostate cancer and nutrition (2008) (free e-txt)
  2. Peters U, Leitzmann MF, Chatterjee N, Wang Y, Albanes D, Gelmann EP, Friesen MD, Riboli E, Hayes RB. Serum lycopene, other carotenoids, and prostate cancer risk: a nested case-control study in the prostate, lung, colorectal, and ovarian cancer screening trial. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2007 May;16(5):962-8. (free PDF)
  3. Byers T. What can randomized controlled trials tell us about nutrition and cancer prevention? CA Cancer J Clin. 1999 Nov-Dec;49(6):353-61. Review (free PDF)
  4. B. Mikhak, D. J. Hunter, D. Spiegelman, E. A. Platz, K. Wu, J. W. Erdman, E. Giovannucci (2008). Manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD) gene polymorphism, interactions with carotenoid levels and prostate cancer risk Carcinogenesis, 29 (12), 2335-2340 DOI: 10.1093/carcin/bgn212
  5. Bag A, Bag N. Target sequence polymorphism of human manganese superoxide dismutase gene and its association with cancer risk: a review.
    Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2008 Dec;17(12):3298-305. Review. (Abstract)
  6. Li H, Kantoff PW, Giovannucci E, Leitzmann MF, Gaziano JM, Stampfer MJ, Ma J. Manganese superoxide dismutase polymorphism, prediagnostic antioxidant status, and risk of clinical significant prostate cancer.Cancer Res. 2005 Mar 15;65(6):2498-504.

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Yet Another Negative Trial with Vitamins in Prostate Cancer: Vitamins C and E.

15 12 2008

Within a week after the large SELECT (Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention) Trial was halted due to disappointing results (see previous posts: [1] and [2]), the negative results of yet another large vitamin trial were announced [7].
Again, no benefits were found from either vitamin C or E when it came to preventing prostate ànd other cancers.
Both trials are now prepublished in JAMA. The full text articles and the accompanying editorial are freely available [3, 4, 5].

In The Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial (PHS II), researchers tested the impact of regular vitamin E and C supplements on cancer rates among 14,641 male physicians over 50: 7641 men from the PHS I study and 7000 new physicians.

The man were randomly assigned to receive vitamin E, vitamin C, or a placebo. Besides vitamin C or E, beta carotene and/or multivitamins were also tested, but beta carotene was terminated on schedule in 2003 and the multivitamin component is continuing at the recommendation of the data and safety monitoring committee.

Similar to the SELECT trial this RCT had a factorial (2×2) design with respect to the vitamins E and C [1]: randomization yielded 4 nearly equal-sized groups receiving:

  • 400-IU synthetic {alpha}-tocopherol (vitamin E), every other day and placebo (similar to the SELECT trial)
  • 500-mg synthetic ascorbic acid (vitamin C), daily and placebo
  • both active agents
  • both placebos.

Over 8 years, taking vitamin E had no impact at all on rates of either prostate cancer (the primary outcome for vitamin E), or cancer in general. Vitamin C had no significant effect on total cancer (primary outcome for vitamin C) and prostate cancer. Neither was there an effect of vitamin E and/or C on other site-specific cancers.

How can the negative results be explained in the light of the positive results of earlier trials?

  • The conditions may differ from the positive trials:
    • The earlier positive trials had less methodological rigor. These were either observational studies or prostate cancer was not their primary outcome (and may therefore be due to chance). (See previous post The best study design for dummies).
    • Clinical data suggest that the positive effect of vitamin E observed in earlier trials was limited to smokers and/or people with low basal levels of vitamin E, whereas animal models suggest that vitamin E is efficacious against high fat-promoted prostate cancer growth (20), but lacks chemopreventive effects (i.e. see [1,4] and references in [5], a preclinical study we published in 2006).
      Indeed, there were very low levels of smoking in the PHS II study and the effect of the vitamins was mainly assessed on induction not on progression of prostate cancer.
    • Eight times higher vitamin E doses (400IE) have been used than in the ATCB study showing a benefit for vitamin E in decreasing prostate cancer risk! [1,4]
  • Other forms of vitamin E and selenium have been proposed to be more effective.
  • As Gann noted in the JAMA-editorial, the men in both recent studies were highly motivated and had good access to care. In SELECT, the majority of men were tested for PSA each year. Probably because of this intense surveillance, the mean PSA at diagnosis was low and prostate cancers were detected in an early, curable stage. Strikingly, there was only 1 death from prostate cancer in SELECT, whereas appr. 75-100 deaths were expected. There also were indications of a deficit in advanced prostate cancer in PHS II, although a much smaller one.
    In other words (Gann):
    “how can an agent be shown to prevent serious, clinically significant prostate cancers when PSA testing may be rapidly removing those cancers from the population at risk before they progress?”
  • Similarly, in the SELECT trial there was no constraint on the use of other multivitamins and both studies put no restriction on the diet. Indeed the group of physicians who participated in the PHS II trial were healthier overall and ate a more nutritious diet. Therefore Dr Shao wondered
    “Do we really have a placebo group – people with zero exposure? None of these physicians had zero vitamin C and E” [7]. In the Netherlands we were not even able to perform a small phase II trial with certain nutrients for the simple reason that most people already took them.

What can we learn from these negative trials (the SELECT trial and this PHS II-trial)?

  • Previous positive results were probably due to chance. In the future a better preselection of compounds and doses in Phase 2 trials should determine which few interventions make it through the pipeline (Gann, Schroder).
  • Many other trials disprove the health benefits of high dose vitamins and some single vitamins may even increase risks for specific cancers, heart disease or mortality [9]. In addition vitamin C has recently been shown to interfere with cancer treatment [10].
  • The trials make it highly unlikely that vitamins prevent the development of prostate cancer (or other cancers) when given as a single nutrient intervention. Instead, as Dr Sasso puts it “At the end of the day this serves as a reminder that we should get back to basics: keeping your body weight in check, being physically active, not smoking and following a good diet.”
  • Single vitamins or high dose vitamins/antioxidants should not be advised to prevent prostate cancer (or any other cancer). Still it is very difficult to convince people not taking supplements.
  • Another issue is that all kind of pharmaceutical companies keep on pushing the sales of these “natural products”, selectively referring to positive results only. It is about time to regulate this.


Sources & other reading (click on grey)

  1. Huge disappointment: Selenium and Vitamin E fail to Prevent Prostate Cancer.(post on this blog about the SELECT trial)
  2. Podcasts: Cochrane Library and MedlinePlus: (post on this blog)
  3. Vitamins E and C in the Prevention of Prostate and Total Cancer in Men: The Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial. J. Michael Gaziano et al JAMA. 2008;0(2008):2008862-11.[free full text]
  4. Effect of Selenium and Vitamin E on Risk of Prostate Cancer and Other Cancers: The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial. Scott M. Lippman, Eric A. Klein et al (SELECT)JAMA. 2008;0(2008):2008864-13 [free full text].
  5. Randomized Trials of Antioxidant Supplementation for Cancer Prevention: First Bias, Now Chance-Next, Cause. Peter H. Gann JAMA. 2008;0(2008):2008863-2 [free full text].
  6. Combined lycopene and vitamin E treatment suppresses the growth of PC-346C human prostate cancer cells in nude mice. Limpens J, Schröder FH, et al. J Nutr. 2006 May;136(5):1287-93 [free full text].

  7. The New York Times (2008/11/19) Study: Vitamins E and C Fail to Prevent Cancer in Men.
  8. BBC news: (2008/12/10) Vitamins ‘do not cut cancer risk’.
  9. The New York Times (2008/11/20) News keeps getting worse for vitamins.
  10. The New York Times (2008/10/01) Vitamin C may interfere with cancer treatment.

Huge disappointment: Selenium and Vitamin E fail to Prevent Prostate Cancer.

16 11 2008


October 27th the news was released that ([see here for entire announcement from]

“an initial, independent review of study data from the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and other institutes that comprise the National Institutes of Health shows that selenium and vitamin E supplements, taken either alone or together, did not prevent prostate cancer. The data also showed two concerning trends: a small but not statistically significant increase in the number of prostate cancer cases among the over 35,000 men age 50 and older in the trial taking only vitamin E and a small, but not statistically significant increase in the number of cases of adult onset diabetes in men taking only selenium. Because this is an early analysis of the data from the study, neither of these findings proves an increased risk from the supplements and both may be due to chance.”

SELECT is the second large-scale study of chemoprevention for prostate cancer. Chemoprevention or chemoprophylaxis refers to the administration of a medication to prevent disease. The SELECT trial aimed to determine whether dietary supplementation with selenium and/or vitamin E could reduce the risk of prostate cancer among healthy men. It is a randomized, prospective, double-blind study with a 2×2 factorial design, which means that the volunteering men received either one of the supplements, b2x2-select-vierkantoth supplements or no supplements (but placebo instead), without knowing which treatment they would receive.
The trial volunteers were randomly assigned to one the following treatments:

  1. 200 µg of selenium and 400 IU of vitamin E per day. (both supplements)
  2. 200 µg of selenium per day and placebo
  3. 400 IU of vitamin E per day and placebo
  4. two different placebo’s (neither supplement)
    (µg = micrograms, IU = International Units)

Enrollment for the trial began in 2001 and ended in 2004. Supplements were to be taken for a minimum of 7 years and a maximum of 12 years. Therefore the final results were anticipated in 2013. However, but due to the negative preliminary results, SELECT participants still in the trial are now being told to stop taking the pills. The participants will continue to have their health monitored by study staff for about three more years, continue to respond to the study questionnaires, and will provide a blood sample at their five-year anniversary of joining the trial, to ensure their health and to allow a complete analysis of the study. (see SELECT Q & A).

In an interview with CBS, one of the investigators Dr Katz, said he was highly disappointed and concerned, because he had high hopes for the trial. “I”m disappointed with the study. I’m very concerned about the results of the trial.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Vitamin E A Flop In Prostate Cancer T…“, (with 15 sec advertisement first) posted with vodpod. This video is derived from CBS news.

Dr. Klein, one of the principal investigators, has published as many as 14 publications on the SELECT trial (see PubMed). He has always been a strong advocate of this huge trial.

The question now is:
Was there enough evidence to support such a large trial? Could this result have been foreseen? Would the trial have had different outcomes if other conditions had been chosen?

The SELECT trial seems to add to the ever growing list of disappointing “preventive” vitamin trials. See for instance this blogpost of sandnsurf on “a systematic review of all the published randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on multivitamins and antioxidant supplements in various diseases, and their effect on overall mortality” concluding:

“Taking the antioxidant vitamins A (and its precursor beta-carotene) and E singly or in multivitamins is dangerous and should be avoided by people eating a healthy diet. On a diet like that recommended here, the intake of these and other important vitamins should be high, with no need for supplementation.”

Quite coincidentally I commented to Sandsnurf blogpost referring to the SELECT trial, 1 week before the bad outcome was announced):

Indeed, in many RCT’s vitamin supplements didn’t have the beneficial effects that they were supposed to have. Already in the early nineties, adverse effects of beta-carotene (higher mortality in smokers) have been shown in several RCT’s. Still, because vitamin E had an expected positive effect on prostate cancer in one such trial, vitamin E is now being tested together with selenium (2X2) in a very large prostate cancer trial. Quite disturbingly, 8 times higher doses vitamin E are being used (400IE) compared to the original study. If the Lawson study is right, the outcome might be harmful. Worrying.

It might be argued that it is easy to criticize a study once the outcome is known. However, this critique is not new.

Already in 2002 a very good critique was written by MA Moyad in Urology entitled: Selenium and vitamin E supplements for prostate cancer: evidence or embellishment?

Here I will summarize the most important arguments against this particular trial (largely based on the Moyad paper)

  • SELECT was based on numerous laboratory and observational studies supporting the use of these supplements. As discussed previously such study designs don’t provide the best evidence.
  • The incidence, or rate of occurrence, of prostate cancer was not the primary focus or endpoint of the few randomized controlled trials studies on which the SELECT study was based.
  • A 2×2 design is inadequate for dose-response evaluations, in other words: before you start the trial, you have to be pretty sure about the optimal dose of each supplement and of the interactive effect of vitamin E and selenium in the particular doses used. The interaction between two agents might be synergistic or additive, also with respect to any negative (i.e. pro-oxidant) effect.
  • Eight times higher vitamin E doses (400IE) have been used than in the ATCB study showing a benefit for vitamin E in decreasing prostate cancer risk! This is remarkable, given the fact that high doses of anti-oxidants can be harmful. Indeed, a prospective study has shown, that vitamin E supplements in higher doses (> or =100 IU) are associated with a higher risk of aggressive or fatal prostate cancer in nonsmokers.
  • Other forms of vitamin E and selenium have been proposed to be more effective. For instance dietary vitamin E (gamma tocopherol and/or gamma tocotrienols) might be more effective in lowering prostate cancer risk than the chemically-derived vitamin E (dl-alpha tocopherol acetate) used in SELECT. Also the used selenomethionine might be less effective than organically-bound selenium.
  • Selenium and vitamin E supplements seem to provide a benefit only for those individuals who have lower baseline plasma levels of selenium or vitamin E.
  • There may be other compounds that may be more effective, like finasteride, lycopene, statins (or with respect to food: a healthy lifestyle)

Katz said. “I would have hoped this would have been the way to prevent cancer in this country.”

Isn’t it a little bit naive to expect such huge effects (25% less prostate cancers) just by taking 2 supplements, given the thoughts summarized above?

In the interview, shown in the CBS-interview LaPook concludes “This is a major disappointment, but it is also progress. Because it’s also important to know what does not prevent cancer.”

Well I wonder whether it is ethical ànd scientifically valid, to do such a costly experiment with 35.000 healthy volunteers, based on such little evidence. Do we have to test each single possibly effective food ingredient as a single intervention?

Official publications and information

– EA Klein:
– Lippman SM, J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Jan 19;97(2):94-102. Designing the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). (PubMed record)
new2.gif The results of the SELECT trial are published in JAMA: Effect of Selenium and Vitamin E on Risk of Prostate Cancer and Other Cancers: The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial. Scott M. Lippman, Eric A. Klein et al SELECT)JAMA. 2008;0(2008):2008864-13, published online December 9th 2008.

– General information on SELECT
– Information on Study design (from Cancer Gov.clinical trialsSWOG s0000) and from

– More information on study designs and the ATCB trial (on which this study was based) in a previous post: the best study design for dummies

– CBS Evening News Exclusive: Vitamin E And Selenium Fail To Prevent The Disease In Large Clinical Trial, NEW YORK, Oct. 27, 2008
– Los Angelos Times; Vitamin E, selenium fail to prevent prostate
– Emaxhealth: NCI stops prostate cancer prevention trial. With many good links to further information