Home / Juvenon Health Journal / Cancer, Inflammation and The Immune System: Jekyll and Hyde 12/04


Juvenon Health Journal volume 3 number 12 december 2004

The Immune System: Jekyll & Hyde

By Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D.

A healthy, potent immune system is important in disease prevention. We cannot survive without it, and its health is increasingly important as we age. Observers dating back to the ancient Greek physician Galen (A.D. 180), as well as the 19th century father of pathology, Virchow, noted the relationship between inflammation (presence of immune cells) and cancer. In other words, they saw that cancer cells and the surrounding tissues appeared inflamed and contained inflammatory cells. In the 20th Century scientists came to understand that immune cells are present in a cancerous area to do just what one would expect of them: kill cancer cells.


Today, a new paradigm emerges: Inflammatory cells can also promote cancer in some tissues. Recent research demonstrates that immune cells can promote cancer growth rather than hinder it, at least in some instances. Inflammation associated with infection or other irritants is estimated to account for at least 15% of all cancers.

Recent research demonstrates that immune cells can promote cancer growth rather than hinder it, at least in some instances.

Don’t panic; this story is not as confusing as it appears thus far. First, a brief review of the immune system and its relevance to cancer growth.

The good Dr. Jekyll of the immune system protects our tissues from invasion by pathogenic foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, and also promotes wound healing. The immune system contains essentially two arms, the innate and the adaptive immune systems. The innate immune system is the first line of defense. It consists of specialized cells whose duty is to patrol our tissues. These cells have a superb ability to recognize an invader as foreign. The foreigner contains clothing (specific molecules on its surface) to alert the innate cell to their presence. Once this foreigner-recognition process starts, the first innate cell combatants release signal molecules (cytokines) to attract an army of bacteria- and virus-eating cells (scavenger macrophages, natural killer cells) to the invaded area. As battle rages, the cells of the innate immune system send an SOS, through the secretion of specialized signal molecules, to the second (adaptive) arm of the immune system. Once notified of the invading pathogens, the adaptive system activates its machinery to produce the big guns, such as antibodies that bind to and neutralize the foreign invaders. Working together, the two arms of the immune system normally succeed in eliminating the pathogens.

OK, that’s the bright side of the immune system. How does Mr. Hyde fit in?

While ridding the body of foreign invaders, the immune system requires new recruits to replace its dead soldiers, and it needs to synthesize new tissue damaged during battle. Numerous signal molecules are released by the immune cells, some to bring in new blood vessels, some to initiate new cellular growth, and still others to bring in the wrecking crew (proteases) to remove the battle-damaged tissues. Normally, swift action by the immune system eliminates the pathogen, the damaged tissue is repaired, and the infected area is essentially cured. However, persistent or chronic inflammation can lead to a more deadly disease, cancer.

From Inflammation to Cancer

During the removal of the pathogen and the repair of the tissue, the cells of the immune system use toxic oxidants, such as hydrogen peroxide, to cripple the pathogen. Unfortunately, this too can damage the host cells and injure the genetic code (DNA). Moreover, the signal molecules released by the immune cells stimulate cell division, and it is known that errors in the genetic code occur every time a cell divides. This is normally not a problem, since the cell can usually repair this damage. Under chronic inflammatory conditions, however, such as occur with hepatitis and other chronic diseases, these genetic errors accumulate to create a pre-cancer cell.

The pre-cancer cell would probably remain in a quiescent state under normal conditions. The inflamed state, however, creates an abnormal condition involving an abundance of nutrition (delivered by the new blood vessels) and growth factors (produced by the inflammatory cells). These conditions are ideal to feed the sleeping pre-cancer cell and transform it into a metastasizing monster. Furthermore, as mentioned above, inflammation promotes increased production of tissue-clearing proteases to remove damaged tissue. Unfortunately, this too can make it easier for the awakened and growing tumor cell to spread to areas where normal tissue barriers are removed by the proteases.

A major discovery from the recent work was the observation that certain cellular messengers produced by the scavenger cells, as well as oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide, promote the production of a protein that in turn revs up the inflamed state. This protein, NF-kB (Nuclear Factor kappa B), is the key regulatory substance involved in activating the cellular machinery of inflammation (resulting in the production of the growth factors, proteases, etc.). In addition to this function of activating the genes of inflammation, NF-kB also prevents the destruction of tumor cells. This latter effect involves the inactivation of cell regulatory proteins that normally recognize cancer cells and send them to the guillotine. These proteins inactivated by NF-kB are commonly referred to as tumor suppressor proteins, as well as cell replication inhibitory proteins. As the names imply, once inactivated they can no longer stop cancer growth. Thus NF-kB promotes cancer cell growth, at least in some tissues, by interfering with the normal function of these proteins.

Some less high-tech, natural compounds, including green tea, the spice turmeric and red wine, have been shown to inhibit cancer growth in cell culture and animal models.

Interestingly, although these tumor suppressor and anti-replication proteins inhibit abnormal (cancerous) cell growth, they have recently been found to be associated with cellular aging. In other words, too much of these cancer-inhibiting proteins can have a negative side, in that they can also lead to premature cell death. (These age-associated, tumor-inhibiting proteins and their link to the aging process will be discussed in our next issue.)

Pathogens such as viruses and bacteria are not the only inflammation-promoting substances. Other culprits include environmental carcinogens, including cigarette smoke, as well as oxidants normally produced during cellular metabolism. Overexposure to any of these sources can lead to an excess production of NF-kB and cancer.

A significant effort is under way to produce drugs capable of interacting with NF-kB to control the cancer-promoting activity of this inflammatory pathway. Interestingly, some less high-tech, natural compounds, including green tea (containing catechins),curcumin from the spice turmeric, and red wine (containing resveratrol), have been shown to inhibit cancer growth in cell culture and animal models. The mechanism appears to involve, at a minimum, inhibition of NF-kB by their active ingredients.


Research Update

Before they are able to develop effective treatments for cancer, scientists must understand in minute detail exactly what triggers pre-cancerous cells to turn deadly, and how the process, once started, proceeds. Researchers have puzzled over an apparent anomaly in which an otherwise protective part of the immune system, called NFkB, can actually promote tumor growth. Recent research has unraveled how NFkB contributes to metastasis in a breast cancer model. Building on the results of this work, scientists can now work on ways to block the process. For technical detailsclick here.

This Research Update column highlights articles related to recent scientific inquiry into the process of human aging. It is not intended to promote any specific ingredient, regimen, or use and should not be construed as evidence of the safety, effectiveness, or intended uses of the Juvenon product. The Juvenon label should be consulted for intended uses and appropriate directions for use of the product.

Ask Ben
Dr. Treadwell answers your questions about Juvenon™ Cellular Health Supplement

QUESTION: What is glutathione?   I keep seeing a product that is to produce and preserve existing stores of glutathione.  The rest of the product endorsement sounds similar to Juvenon, i.e. boost energy levels, enhance immune system, etc.   Will the Juvenon that I am taking produce and preserve glutathione?
F.V.M., via email

ANSWER: Glutathione is a tripeptide that is synthesized by our cells and is critical for the health of all cells, and especially red blood cells.  It is a potent antioxidant and necessary for numerous biological reactions. Yes, theJuvenon™ Cellular Health Formula does increase levels of glutathione in our cells.  It is an important function of Juvenon in maintaining cellular health.

Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D., is a former Harvard Medical School associate professor and member of Juvenon’s Scientific Advisory Board.

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