Food Toxin Linked to Testicular Cancer

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 7, 2002 -- A Wake Forest University researcher suggests that a toxin found commonly in certain foods may be causing testicular cancer in many men -- especially when exposed early in life.

Testicular cancer is the most common cancer among white men aged 15-34. This type of cancer differs from most other cancers in that the frequency peaks about age 25-34 years of age and then declines. It's uncommon in boys under 10 and in men over 60. And the frequency continues to climb, according to Gary G. Schwartz, PhD, MPH.

Some preliminary research has pointed to exposure to a cancer-causing substance in early life or even in the womb. But the exact nature of this association isn't known.

Schwartz looked at exposure to a toxin called ochratoxin A as a potential cause of testicular cancer. This is a naturally occurring contaminant that comes from mold, according to Schwartz. It occurs in grains and other plant products, including coffee, nuts, and spices. It can also be found in animal-derived foods, especially pork products, due to feeding on moldy plant products.

Schwartz, associate professor of cancer biology and public health services, published his findings in the February issue of Cancer Causes and Control.

Testicular cancer also varies from region to region. It's found more commonly in northern than in central or southern Europe, for example. Schwartz notes that grains grown in northern Europe are more likely to be contaminated because weather conditions during harvest promote mold.

Data on amounts of ochratoxin A in the U.S. have recently surfaced. A recent survey of cereal grains and coffee imported into the U.S. found the contaminant in 11% of barley samples, 15% of wheat samples, and 69% of roasted coffee samples.

Evidence that ochratoxin A may cause cancer comes from mice, in which it has been shown to cause kidney cancer. And it was shown -- in pregnant mice and rats -- to cross the placenta and accumulate in organs in the fetus, where it causes DNA changes that could lead to cancer.

As far as testicular cancer in humans, Schwartz's theory goes like this.

First, a male fetus is exposed to ochratoxin A during pregnancy, which causes damage to DNA in the testicles. Plus, the toxin is present in breast milk, so infants could be exposed through breastfeeding. He suggests that the DNA changes remain dormant until testicular growth occurs at puberty. This, he says, spurs these changes in testicular DNA to become cancer.

There is a big if here though. Schwartz's theory has not been proven yet. But if it does turn out to be true -- with further research -- he does suggest several ways to combat this problem.

Public health efforts may be able to reduce exposure to ochratoxin A. And interestingly, he notes that levels of the toxin could be reduced by giving pregnant women anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or indomethacin or vitamins A, C, and E.

"These agents, in animals at least, markedly reduce the DNA damage caused by ochratoxin A," Schwartz said in a news release.

He also points out that aspartame, the sweetener found in Nutrasweet, can actually fight the effects of ochratoxin A.

No one is suggesting at this point that pregnant women start taking anti-inflammatory drugs or massive doses of vitamins to prevent testicular cancer in boys and men. And likewise, you shouldn't load up on Nutrasweet based on these findings.

But Schwartz does suggest future research should try to prove or disprove the association between this common toxin and testicular cancer. Plus, studies are needed looking at exposure with breastfeeding and the association between suspected foods and testicular cancer, he says.