Zinc Status and Its Relevance to Cancer

Zinc deficiency affects many cellular systems in the host because of zinc's essential role in many aspects of cellular metabolism. Zinc deficiency can occur in populations with low dietary zinc intake and high concentration of phytate, a powerful chelator of divalent metals. Although severe zinc deficiency is rare, mild deficiency is highly prevalent even in developed countries. Populations that are at high risk include individuals at early stages of the life cycle (i.e. infancy and childhood) when requirements for zinc are high. In addition, the elderly have an increased risk of zinc depletion because zinc absorption may be impaired and they tend to consume low zinc diets.84 Foods rich in zinc include red meat and seafood. Several plant sources such as whole grains and legumes also contain zinc, but the zinc in these sources is much less bioavail-able. Thus, vegetarians may also be at risk of zinc deficiency.

The role of zinc in cancer has received increasing attention. The link between zinc deficiency and cancer has been established in human, animal and cell culture studies. Zinc status is compromised in cancer patients compared to healthy controls.85,86 Zinc deficiency causes oxidative DNA damage87 and chromosome breaks have been reported in animals fed a zinc-deficient diet.88 In rats, dietary zinc deficiency causes an increased susceptibility to tumor development when exposed to carcinogenic compounds.89 93 Zinc deficiency has also been suggested to be a contributor to the development of esophageal tumors in rats.91,92,94 In vitro, cell culture studies have also shown that zinc deficiency can lead to increased oxidative damage to testicular cell DNA.95 Together, these data strongly suggest that zinc deficiency itself compromises the integrity of DNA and may increase one's risk of developing cancer. However, the exact molecular mechanism by which zinc deficiency impacts DNA integrity and cancer risk remains unclear and is likely a complex multi-layered process. Understanding the basic molecular mechanisms behind human nutrient deficiencies will help us better understand the role of proper nutrition in the prevention of many chronic disease states such as cancer.

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