10-Minute Urine Test Can Measure Specific Compounds from Food Consumed

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WASHINGTON (March 16, 2016) — Can we say goodbye to unreliable food diaries and diet recall in exchange for a urine test that will better aid researchers in figuring out what foods might help prevent cancer?

Researchers at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC, have developed a method that can quickly evaluate specific food compounds in human urine. They say their method could one day replace unreliable food logs used in population studies examining the effects of diet on cancer and will also help scientists accurately identify the most beneficial anticancer foods.

For their study, the researchers focused on cruciferous vegetables, which showed a protective benefit against lung cancer in a study of more than 63,000 people who participated in the National Institutes of Health’s Singapore Chinese Health Study. Cruciferous vegetables, a major food in the Asian diet, include cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy and watercress, among others.

“We know these foods are beneficial to health, and the ten-minute method we developed, which can test for the presence of specific compounds linked to these vegetables, will help researchers quantify exactly how much of these molecules are being consumed,” says the study’s lead author, Marcin Dyba, PhD, from Georgetown Lombardi. He’ll present the study’s findings Monday, April 18, at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in New Orleans (abstract below).

Dyba says the urine test will also allow scientists to figure out which compounds associated with cruciferous vegetables have the strongest link to cancer prevention. Those findings could then be tested in animal models, and if any of the molecules are found to be significantly protective against cancer, the information could lead to stronger dietary recommendations or to a dietary supplement, he says. 

“We are very interested in understanding how and why the compounds work,” Dyba says. “You couldn’t do this work just using self-reported food logs.”

The Georgetown scientists validated the effectiveness of their tool using urine that was collected as part of the Singapore Chinese Health Study.

That study, which began in Singapore in 1993, was designed to look at the effect of diet on cancer and a number of other disorders. Researchers, led by Jian-Min Yuan, MD, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and a co-author on this study, gave more than 63,000 middle- and older-aged residents of Singapore a detailed, 165-item quantitative food frequency questionnaire, and then followed them over several years through telephone calls. In 2005, about half of the study participants donated biospecimens, and studies examining urine donations found compounds from cruciferous vegetables that might be offering anti-cancer benefits.

The new urine test looks for specific members of the isothiocyanates (ITCs) family (among other compounds), found in cruciferous vegetables. Animal and cell studies have shown that different types of ITCs have varying anticancer properties and potency, suggesting they are not equal in protecting against cancer, Dyba says. “We developed our test because there has been no way to find out which specific ITCs works best,” he says.

The study’s senior author is Fung-Lung Chung, PhD, a professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi. Dyba is a research associate in Chung’s laboratory. In addition to Chung, Dyba and Yuan, Jennifer Adams-Haduch from the University of Pittsburgh is an author of the study.

No research funds were used for this study. Researchers report no conflicts of interest.

About Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center
Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Georgetown University Medical Center and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, seeks to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer through innovative basic and clinical research, patient care, community education and outreach, and the training of cancer specialists of the future.  Georgetown Lombardi is one of only 45 comprehensive cancer centers in the nation, as designated by the National Cancer Institute (grant #P30 CA051008), and the only one in the Washington, DC area.  For more information, go to http://lombardi.georgetown.edu.

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization, which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award (UL1TR001409-01) from the National Institutes of Health.