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Cancer Res. 1999 Nov 15;59(22):5704-9.

Red meat and colon cancer: the cytotoxic and hyperproliferative effects of dietary heme.

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Wageningen Centre for Food Sciences, Netherlands Institute for Dairy Research Food Research, Ede.


The intake of a Western diet with a high amount of red meat is associated with a high risk for colon cancer. We hypothesize that heme, the iron carrier of red meat, is involved in diet-induced colonic epithelial damage, resulting in increased epithelial proliferation. Rats were fed purified control diets, or purified diets supplemented with 1.3 micromol/g of hemin (ferriheme), protoporphyrin IX, ferric citrate, or bilirubin (n = 8/group) for 14 days. Feces were collected for biochemical analyses. Fecal cytotoxicity was determined from the degree of lysis of erythrocytes by fecal water. Colonic epithelial proliferation was measured in vivo using [3H]thymidine incorporation into colonic mucosa. The colonic epithelial proliferation in heme-fed rats was significantly increased compared to control rats [55.2 +/- 5.8 versus 32.6 +/- 6.3 dpm/microg DNA (mean +/- SE); P < 0.05]. The fecal water of the heme group was highly cytotoxic compared to the controls (90 +/- 2% versus 2 +/- 1%; P < 0.001), although the concentrations of cytotoxic bile acids and fatty acids were significantly lower. Organic iron was significantly increased compared to the controls (257 +/- 26 versus 80 +/- 21, microM; P < 0.001). Spectrophotometric analyses suggest that this organic iron is heme-associated. Thiobarbituric acid-reactive substances were greatly increased in the fecal water of heme-fed rats compared to the controls (177 +/- 12 versus 59 +/- 7 microM; P < 0.05). Heme itself could not account for the increased cytotoxicity because the addition of heme to the fecal water of the control group, which was equimolar to the organic iron content of the fecal water of the heme group, did not influence the cytotoxicity. Hence, an additional heme-induced cytotoxic factor is involved, which may be modulated by the generation of luminal-reactive oxygen species. Protoporphyrin IX, ferric citrate, and bilirubin did not increase proliferation and cytotoxicity. In conclusion, dietary heme leads to the formation of an unknown, highly cytotoxic factor in the colonic lumen. This suggests that, in heme-fed rats, colonic mucosa is damaged by the intestinal contents. This results in a compensatory hyperproliferation of the epithelium, which supposedly increases the risk for colon cancer.

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