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UChicago study finds fatty acid found in some red meat can help fight cancer

Study shows nutrient in some red meat may help fight cancer
Study shows nutrient in some red meat may help fight cancer 00:31

CHICAGO (CBS) -- In a discovery that might seem to run contrary to health guidelines – but that researchers say really doesn't – new research shows a nutrient found in red meat such as beef and lamb could actually help fight cancer.

Researchers at the University of Chicago Biological Sciences Division found that trans-vaccenic acid (TVA) – a long-chain fatty acid in meat and dairy products from grazing animals like cows and sheep – improves the ability of CD8+ T cells in the immune system infiltrate tumors and kill cancer cells.

The research was published last week in the journal Nature. It shows in addition that people with higher levels of TVA circulating in their blood responded better to immunotherapy.

"There are many studies trying to decipher the link between diet and human health, and it's very difficult to understand the underlying mechanisms because of the wide variety of foods people eat. But if we focus on just the nutrients and metabolites derived from food, we begin to see how they influence physiology and pathology," Jing Chen, PhD, the Janet Davison Rowley Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine at UChicago and a senior author of the new study, said in a news release. "By focusing on nutrients that can activate T cell responses, we found one that actually enhances anti-tumor immunity by activating an important immune pathway."

But before you grab your steak knife, the scientists emphasize that the point of the study is not to advise people to eat more red meat.

"There is a growing body of evidence about the detrimental health effects of consuming too much red meat and dairy, so this study shouldn't be taken as an excuse to eat more cheeseburgers and pizza," Matt Wood, assistant director of communications at the UChicago Biological Sciences Division, wrote in the release. "Rather, it indicates that nutrient supplements such as TVA could be used to promote T cell activity."

Chen wrote that other fatty acids from plants signal through a receptor similar to TVA.

Last month, a study by researchers from Harvard University said eating just two servings of red meat a week increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life – with the risk rising with greater consumption.

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