Genetic Link Between Colon Cancer Risk and Meat Consumption?



It’s finally barbecue season again. The aroma of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers is the smell of summer and brings back memories of family picnics and ball games.

Although burgers and dogs are tasty, you may consider eating other proteins for your overall health. Past research shows eating red and processed meat can increase your risk for colorectal cancer (CRC). A new study suggests genetics can alter colon cancer risk based on red or processed meat consumption.

New Study Underscores Health Risks of Red and Processed Meat

A new study supported by the National Institutes of Health and led by the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, found that people who ate red or processed meat were, respectively, 30 or 40 percent more likely to develop colon cancer.

The researchers studied data on more than 29,000 people with colon cancer and more than 39,000 without colon cancer. During the study, they isolated two genes, HAS2 and SMAD7, that affected colon cancer risk based on red or processed meat consumption.

“These findings suggest that there’s a subset of the population that faces an even higher risk of colorectal cancer if they eat red or processed meat,” lead author Mariana C. Stern, PhD, a Professor of Population and Public Health Sciences and Urology, told Medical Xpress.

“It also allows us to get a peek at the potential mechanism behind that risk, which we can then follow up with experimental studies,” added Dr. Stern, who is also the Ira Goodman Chair in Cancer Research and the associate director for Population Science at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The study made significant progress in establishing the connection between red and processed meat and colon cancer, but the team has not found a causal link for the genetic variants.

“This gives us some important food for thought,” said Dr. Stern. “We do these gene-environment interaction studies when we know there’s a clear association between an environmental exposure and a disease, but what happens in between is still a black box.”

What Are Some Alternatives to Red or Processed Meat?

Healthier alternatives to hamburgers, steak, hot dogs, sausage and deli meat include lean poultry like chicken or turkey breast. Poultry provides an excellent source of flavorful protein without the cancer risk. Try eating fish like salmon or tuna, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Adding some seasonal vegetables to the menu will help you be satisfied and satiated.

Also, consider an alternate cooking method for proteins than grilling. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when beef, pork, fish or poultry cooks at high temperatures. Laboratory studies show HCAs and PAHs change the DNA in meat and can increase the risk of cancer.

Routine Screenings Can Detect and Even Prevent Colon Cancer

It is estimated there will be about 106,590 new cases of colon cancer and 46,220 new cases of rectal cancer in 2024. Of all the cancer deaths in people younger than 50, colorectal cancer is the leading cause of death in men and the second-leading cause of death in women.

Routine screening is the most effective way to prevent CRC, even more so than diet or exercise. Because colon cancer can develop slowly without symptoms, it is important for adults at average risk to begin screening at age 45. If you have risk factors, like a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, inflammatory bowel disease or hereditary colon cancer, you should start screening earlier.

Several options are available to screen for colorectal cancer. The goal of colonoscopy is to find and remove polyps growing on the colon wall. Most polyps are benign; however, if they are not removed, some could become cancerous. If the exam does not detect polyps and you are not at higher risk for colon cancer, your next screening may be in 10 years.

If you choose to take an alternate screening test and your result is positive, you will need a follow-up colonoscopy to determine the cause of the positive result.

Don’t Ignore Potential CRC Symptoms

Talk to your doctor if you experience any of these common symptoms for colon cancer: abdominal pain, blood in the stool, changes in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss or vomiting.

If you have digestive symptoms, you should consult your doctor, regardless of your age.

Find a Gastroenterologist Near You

When was the last time you had a colorectal cancer screening? Scheduling your colonoscopy at an ambulatory surgery center may be a good option because these centers are dedicated to specific procedures and may be less expensive.

Physicians at our colon cancer screening centers are accepting new patients and look forward to serving you. Call today to make an appointment with a fellowship-trained gastroenterologist.