Family Predisposition to Cancer Inspires Scientist to Research Nutritional Solutions

Newswise — Columbus, OH – Colleen Spees has always been interested in the role that diet played in disease, and set her sights on a career where she would counsel patients and train future dietitians. With multiple family members diagnosed with various types of cancer, Colleen decided to make the transition from clinical professional and nutrition educator to research scientist.

“My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42. I had already lost a brother at age 15 to lymphosarcoma,” recalls Spees, now an assistant professor of Medical Dietetics and Health Sciences in the College of Medicine at The Ohio State University, “Our family began to wonder if there might be a genetic component that made us more susceptible to getting cancer. This is when I began delving into the research.”

Spees and her family underwent testing at the Clinical Cancer Genetics Program at Ohio State, where it was determined that several members were carriers of an autosomal dominant mutation known as Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS). This is a particularly severe cancer syndrome that exponentially increases cancer risk. In normal cell cycle regulation, a protein called p53 acts as a tumor suppressor and is known as the “guardian of the genome.” However, LFS patients have a mutated or inactive p53 protein that can promote carcinogenesis.

“I am not a carrier of the mutation, but as part of my coping mechanism with this family crisis, I immediately began an extensive search for clinical trials, current research, and evidenced-based recommendations to share with my LFS affected family members. Finding very little in the way of research, I now had additional motivation to couple my expertise in nutrition with cancer genomics” says Spees.

In 2009, Spees was awarded a TL1 Trainee Award by Ohio State’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) that give recipients the opportunity to gain experience and training while working with an experienced mentor. Spees, mentored by Drs. Steven Clinton and Kay Wolf, began studying p53 mutations that are believed to be correlated with a poorer prognosis in men with prostate cancer.

In collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health, the study is using tissue samples and records from a prospective cohort of men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS). This study will be the largest ever of its kind and the first to assess the relationship with dietary patterns to the p53 dysregulation in any human cancer. Spees hopes to determine if specific dietary factors or patterns have an impact on decreased severity or progression of prostate cancer.

Research continues to support positive health interactions between vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals common in fruits and vegetables that can help prevent or fight cancer. Spees’ mentor, Dr. Clinton, and his collaborators, are leading the charge to combat chronic disease through nutrition by developing and testing “superfoods” such as tomato soy juice, soy almond bread, and black raspberry products.

Spees encourages the dietary recommendations set forth by the AICR (American Institute of Cancer Research). These guidelines align closely with The New American Plate recommendations that "at least 2/3 of your plate should be filled with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and beans." Specific to cancer, the AICR recommends intake of the following evidence-based cancer-fighting foods:• Beans (legumes such as lentils and peas that have healthy doses of fiber) have been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth and slow tumor progression.• Berries contain great sources of vitamin C and fiber that appear to prevent certain cancers and slow cancer cell growth and proliferation.• Cruciferous Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, bok choy, and kale) are non-starchy vegetables that have proven protective anti-cancer properties • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables (spinach, kale, lettuce, greens, chicory, and swiss chard) are great sources of folate, fiber, and phytochemicals that protect cells from damage• Flaxseed (flaxseed flour, meal, oil, and ground flaxseeds) contain omega-3 fatty acid and phytoestrogens that, in early studies, inhibit cancer growth.• Garlic (as well as onions, scallions, leeks, and chives) seems to protect against certain cancers and slow or stop the growth of others when part of a mostly plant-based diet. • Grapes and Grape Juice contain resveratrol, a phytochemical found in the skin of red and purple grapes that has shown promise in preventing and slowing tumor progression. • Green Tea contains compounds that prevent cell damage. In other studies, green tea has been effective in slowing down or completely preventing tumor development. • Soy (tofu, soymilk, soybeans, soynuts, miso, tempeh, soy burgers, and soynut butter) contain isoflavones and other phytochemicals that have been shown to inhibit cancer growth and may be protective if consumed during adolescence.• Tomatoes appear to protect against some cancers by preventing cellular damage. • Whole Grains (brown rice, whole wheat, whole grains, oatmeal, popcorn, wild rice, tortilla, kasha, and tabouleh) are rich in fiber and hundreds of other anti-cancer and protective phytochemicals.

Spees is also a member of the Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center (CCC), The Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship (CAFFRE), The Food Innovation’s Center (FIC) and serves as co-investigator on projects with the MidOhio Foodbank and Columbus Neighborhood Health Center. In addition, she has co-authored and taught Ohio State’s first Nutritional Genomics course.

She earned her doctorate in Health Sciences from Ohio State, a Master’s degree in Health Promotion and Exercise Science from Vanderbilt University and completed her undergraduate training in Medical Dietetics at Ohio State.

For more information on Dr. Spees or other translational research at Ohio State, please contact Kim Toussant at or 614-366-7215.

About The Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational ScienceDedicated to turning the scientific discoveries of today into the life-changing health innovations of tomorrow, The Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science (OSU CCTS) is a collaboration of experts including scientists and clinicians from seven OSU Health Science Colleges, OSU Medical Center and Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Funded by a multi-year Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Institutes of Health, OSU CCTS provides financial, organizational and educational support to biomedical researchers as well as opportunities for community members to participate in credible and valuable research. The CCTS is led by Rebecca Jackson, M.D., Director of the CCTS and associate dean of research at Ohio State. For more information, visit

About the Clinical and Translational Science AwardsLaunched in 2006 by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program created academic homes for clinical and translational science at research institutions across the country. The CTSA’s primary goals are to speed the time it takes for basic science to turn into useable therapeutics that directly improve human health, and to train the next generation of clinicians and translational researchers.