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Enhanced with lycopene, Natural Killer Cells are better cancer fighters

A diet with lots of vegetables and fruit protects against almost every chronic disease, and that is partly because vegetables and fruit are sources of carotenoids such as lycopene, lutein and beta-carotene. Chinese researchers published an in vitro study that reveals at least one way in which carotenoids protect health: they prolong the life of the Natural Killer cells that clean up cancer cells in our body.

The researchers extracted Natural Killer cells from the blood of volunteers, and preserved them 3 weeks before they started experimenting. Natural Killer cells begin to age after that period. The Chinese preserved some of the cells in serum with some added lycopene.

The Natural Killer cells exposed to lycopene held out longer in the researchers' petri dishes and test tubes than did the cells in the control group.

Enhanced with lycopene, Natural Killer Cells are better cancer fighters

Enhanced with lycopene, Natural Killer Cells are better cancer fighters

When the researchers brought their Natural Killer cells into contact with leukemic cells, they saw that the Natural Killer cells that had been exposed to lycopene remained longer able to clear up the cancer cells.

Lycopene also increased the amount of interferon-gamma that the Natural Killer cells produced. Interferon-gamma is a cytokine that is released when immune cells like Natural Killer cells terminate cancer cells.

Enhanced with lycopene, Natural Killer Cells are better cancer fighters
"Lycopene has the positive effect on Natural Killer cells by prolonging its lifespan, increasing its cytotoxicity and decreasing its apoptosis, which can be used as a health product to increase immunity", the researchers wrote.

They added that other carotenoids, like lutein, have the same effect on Natural Killer cells.

"Lutein is another carotenoid with no provitamin A activity", wrote the researchers. "Studies show that, dietary lutein increased IFN-gamma mRNA expression in splenocytes and decreased apoptosis in blood leukocytes of tumor bearing mice compared to un-supplemented ones." [Anticancer Res. 2003 Jul-Aug;23(4):3333-9.]

"Our results show that lycopene also significantly increases the Natural Killer cells IFN-gamma expression in gene and protein levels. The increased IFN-gamma secretion could help to increase the cytotoxicity of Natural Killer cells."

Bioengineering and Bioscience 2(3): 23-30, 2014.

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Cancer Prevention & Survival
Immune System

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Human study.