The field of antioxidants and free radical biology studies the interaction between free radicals and antioxidants to prevent diseases. It would be erroneous to classify all free radicals as bad nor all antioxidants as good. According to researchers, it’s a fine balance of the two to allow antioxidants keep down the levels of free radicals while permitting them to perform useful functions without causing too much damage. Tomorrow’s health wearables may be able to take daily readings of your antioxidants and free radical levels to prevent cancer on its tracks.
Lifetime of Carcinogens
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluates the cancer-causing potential of more than 900 candidates and classifies carcinogens into carcinogenic to humans, probably carcinogenic to humans, possibly carcinogenic to humans, and other categories. Carcinogens can be found in everything from lifestyle factors (food, pesticides, alcohol, tobacco, physical activity), medicines and radiation, environment (pollution, engine exhaust, UV, radon gas, coal) to specific occupational exposures.
There is even a calculation of cancer risk that takes cancer slope factors to estimate the risk of cancer associated with exposure to a carcinogenic substance.
Given a lifetime of exposure to carcinogens, it’s not surprising that cancer is primarily a disease of older people, with incidence rates increasing with age for most cancers. According to the Cancer Research UK, over half of all cancers are diagnosed in adults aged 50 to 74.
According to the American Cancer Society’s 2015 Cancer Facts & Figures, 1,658,370 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed and 589,430 Americans are expected to die of cancer in 2015.
Combating Free Radicals with Antioxidants
But what may be surprising is that even the healthy are susceptible to cancer. According to Dr. Lester Packer, a recipient of the National Order of Merit for his lifetime scientific achievements in the field of antioxidants and free radical biology, free radicals are also generated during exercise. Free radicals have the potential to cause damage to cells, including damage that may lead to cancer. (Some researchers believe that free radical reactions are one of many mechanisms leading to cancer.) In ‘The Antioxidant Miracle,’ Dr. Packer’s human studies showed that vigorous exercise increased free radicals and lipid peroxidation, and decreased glutathione. After a strenuous workout, there is a decrease in blood glutathione levels and signs of oxidative stress and damaged lipids and proteins. After exercise, the body does repair the damaged lipids and proteins, returning 99.9% back to normal. However, a tiny fraction will remain damaged, and over time, the accumulated damage can cause problems. This may explain why long-time marathon runners, cyclists, and other active sports enthusiasts are sometimes diagnosed with cancer.
Optimal Levels of Antioxidants
In order to mitigate accumulation of free radicals overtime, Dr. Packer advocates protecting against oxidative stress with antioxidants or chemicals that block free radicals. Some antioxidants are made naturally in the body. Others can only be obtained from food and supplements. Popular antioxidant supplements include lipoic acid, vitamin E, vitamin C, CoQ10, flavonoids, carotenoids, and selenium. According to the National Cancer Institute, laboratory research has shown that exogenous antioxidants can help prevent the free radical damage associated with the development of cancer. The ruling on human research is not yet conclusive on the benefits of antioxidant supplements. Dr. Packer’s general guidance on antioxidants can be found in this table.
The big question is what is the optimal biochemical balance that minimizes the rate of metabolic damage? This will depend on factors such as your age, physical activity, life stage (nursing mothers), diet, and others. So how do you know if you have optimal levels of antioxidants? Today that requires a PANTOX Profile ordered by a licensed practitioner. A blood sample via a specimen kit is mailed to PANTOX for blood analysis. The process is inconvenient, time-consuming, and expensive.
In Vivo Monitoring of Antioxidants and Free Radicals Through Wearables
How can wearables solve the problem of monitoring your levels of antioxidants and free radicals on an ongoing basis? Knowing your levels equips you to adjust your daily dosage of antioxidant supplements to ensure that you are maintaining the optimal level of antioxidants. Some studies indicate that large doses of supplemental antioxidants can be harmful and even lead to cancer. Hence, the key is to consume proper doses that maintain optimal balance, which is not a fixed target but a fluctuating line. That requires a highly personalized approach.
Medical laboratory services such as Theranos has been able to innovate to use a few drops of blood obtained via a fingerstick rather than vials of blood obtained via traditional venipuncture but that still requires sending the sample to the lab.
Perhaps more promising is the development of wearable semi-invasive blood sampling devices (that is currently being developed for continuous glucose monitoring). These devices use a microneedle, a microactuator for needle insertion, and a blood extraction mechanism that can be adapted to analyze antioxidants and free radical in the blood.
The future of wearables will eventually evolve to indigestibles and injectables. Google X nanoparticles gives us a glimpse into the future of using nanoparticles in the blood stream to detect and diagnose diseases. Such capabilities can be extended to measure the levels of network antioxidants and electronically transmit data to the person, eliminating the need for blood samples and lab work.
Our greatest tool for cancer prevention may lie in a convenient method to measure our antioxidants and free radical levels on a regular basis, alerting us when we are out of equilibrium.
Originally published on the Examiner on February 9, 2015. Author Scott Amyx.