Eating the trendy Mediterranean diet could play a role in reducing women’s risk of getting breast cancer, according to a study by Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Researchers’ focus for the study was evaluating whether the role that microbiome play in our guts has a similar effect on the breast gland.

A November article in the New York Times defined microbiome as “the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit virtually every body part, including those tissues once thought to be sterile.”

The article said microbiome “represent what is perhaps the most promising, yet challenging, task of modern medicine: Determining the normal microscopic inhabitants of every organ and knowing how to restore the proper balance of organisms when it is disrupted.”

Being able to shift the breast microbiome through diet “may offer a new approach to preventing breast cancer or at least reducing the risk,” said Katherine Cook, the study’s lead author. She is professor of surgery for hypertension and cancer biology.

The Wake Forest Baptist study is published in the latest issue of the journal Cell Reports.

The study reviewed on primates for 2½ years the effects of a high-fat Western diet with a Mediterranean diet on breast tissue. Researchers said that time span is the equivalent of eight years in humans.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a Mediterranean diet typically emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.

Other elements involve: replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil and canola oil; using herbs and spices, instead of salt, to flavor foods; and limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month.

Researchers found the group that ate the Mediterranean diet had a distinctly different set of bacteria in their breast tissue than those that ate the Western diet.

Consuming the Mediterranean diet led to about a 10-fold increase of mammary gland lactobacillus, a bacteria shown to decrease breast cancer tumor growth in preclinical models. The Mediterranean diet also resulted in more bile acid metabolites in the breast tissue, which may reduce breast cancer risk.

“We were surprised that diet directly influenced microbiome outside of the intestinal tract in sites such as the mammary gland,” Cook said.

“However, we are just at the early stages of understanding how dietary effects on the microbiome might be used to protect women from breast cancer.”

Previously published research showed microbiome populations can vary due to geographic area. In response, the research team plans to obtain tissue biopsies from animals housed in different regions of the country, Cook said.

Additional pre-clinical studies are being conducted by researchers to investigate whether oral interventions, such as fish oil or probiotic supplements, can affect microbiome populations in mammary glands and in breast tumors.

The team also is studying the role of bacterial-modified bioactive compounds and bile acids on breast cancer tumor growth, therapeutic responsiveness and inflammation.

Grant funding to the study was provided by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Chronic Disease Research Fund, American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen and Prevent Cancer Foundation.

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