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Chickens fed a diet of flaxseed for a year experienced a decreased severity of ovarian cancer and higher survival rates. The finding is important because the chicken is the only animal where ovarian cancer develops on the ovary surface, as it does in humans. Flaxseed, the richest plant source of alpha-linolenic acid, has also been shown to inhibit the formation of colon, breast, skin, and lung tumors.  (Credit: U. Illinois)

U. ILLINOIS (US)—Chickens consuming a diet rich in flaxseed experienced a decreased severity of ovarian cancer and increased survival rates. The finding is significant because ovarian cancer in humans develops in a similar way.

“The chicken is the only animal that spontaneously develops ovarian cancer on the surface of the ovaries like humans,” says Janice Bahr, professor emerita in animal sciences at the University of Illinois. “In this study, we evaluated how a flaxseed-enriched diet affected 2-year-old laying hens (hens that have ovulated as many times as a woman entering menopause).”

Flaxseed is the richest plant source of alpha-linolenic acid, one type of omega-3 fatty acid. Several studies have already shown that flaxseed inhibits the formation of colon, breast, skin, and lung tumors.

“Though hens fed the flaxseed diet did not have a decreased incidence of ovarian cancer, they did experience fewer late-stage tumors and higher survival rates,” Bahr says. The research was published in Gynecologic Oncology.

“In hens fed flaxseed, we found that more tumors were confined to the ovary and they had less metastatic spread,” Bahr explains. “This is an important finding as the metastases that accompany late-stage ovarian cancer are the main cause of death from this disease.

“If the cancer is found at an early stage, when the tumor is still confined to the ovary, women have a much better prognosis and more treatment options.”

There are 25,000 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year and 15,000 die. “Most women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a very poor prognosis because they are not diagnosed until stage 3 or 4 when the cancer has metastasized and spread to other parts of the body,” Bahr says.

Researchers also found that hens fed the flaxseed diet had better weight control which is important because obesity increases cancer risk.

Both diets had equal caloric content, but the flaxseed-fed hens weighed less at six months than the control-fed hens. At 12 months, the flaxseed-fed hens were the same weight and the control-fed hens had loss significant weight, which is indicative of failing health.

Ultimately, the flaxseed-enriched diet helped the birds maintain a healthy weight and resulted in less sickness and death.

“Through this research, we have proven that flaxseed supplementation for one year is able to reduce the severity of ovarian cancer in hens,” she says. “These findings may provide the basis for a clinical trial that evaluates the efficacy of flaxseed as a chemosuppressant of ovarian cancer in women.”

Researchers from Southern Illinois University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Rush University Medical Center contributed to the study, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and NIH Training.

More University of Illinois news: www.aces.uiuc.edu/news