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Study links copper intake to cancer cells growth

Tap water coming through copper pipes is one of the main sources of dietary copper.

Copper’s bad reputation seems to be growing. The metal, already framed as one of the main environmental factors that trigger the onset and enhance the progression of Alzheimer’s, is now being linked to the accelerated growth of cancer cells.

According to a study led by Douglas Hanahan, researcher at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and holder of the Merck Serono Chair in Oncology, copper in drinking water – given at the maximum levels permitted in public water supplies – accelerated the growth of tumours in mice.

The research, published at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), provides direct evidence that copper can enhance the proliferation of cancer cells in humans as well.

“The biggest surprise was that a small amount of copper added to drinking water accelerated the growth of tumours, indicating that copper is an essential nutrient for them, said Seiko Ishida, one of the paper’s authors.

Tap water coming through copper pipes, red meat and shellfish as well as fruit and vegetables are all sources of dietary copper, which is vital to keep a healthy body. The catch is, says the researchers, that over certain levels it can also cause accelerate the growth of tumours.

The researchers, however, do not think that copper causes cancer. Exposure of healthy mice to the same amount of copper provided via drinking water to sick mice, for up to two years, did not result in an increased incidence of cancer. The authors suggest their findings show that copper levels should be monitored in cancer patients as a way of controlling the expansion of the disease.

They propose that minimizing copper in the patient’s system may be beneficial in cancer therapy, especially when combined with certain drugs in order to starve cancer cells, which tend to require much higher amounts of energy than normal ones.