Mold Toxin Linked to Testicular Cancer
N.C. - A Wake Forest University cancer researcher has proposed that a
compound found in certain foods may be a cause of testicular cancer in young
Writing in the February 2002 issue of
Cancer Causes and Control,
Gary G. Schwartz, Ph.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., proposes that exposure to a common
carcinogen called ochratoxin A during childhood or even before birth may set
up the testes so that testicular growth during puberty triggers the launch
of testicular cancer.
Ochratoxin A results from molds that grow in grains and coffee beans and is
found in animals that consume moldy grain, especially pigs.
"Little is known about the etiology of testicular cancer, which is the most
common cancer among young men," said Schwartz, associate professor of cancer
biology and public health sciences. It strikes men mostly between 14 and 34.
He said that epidemiologic data point to exposure either in the womb or
early in life, "but the nature of the exposure is unknown."
Schwartz's new theory calls for a process that takes several steps. It
begins with exposure to ochratoxin A during pregnancy or early childhood,
which induces damage to testicular DNA. Ochratoxin A is transferred through
the placenta to the fetus, and also is present in mothers' milk, so infants
could be exposed through breastfeeding. The DNA changes remain dormant until
testicular growth at puberty promotes these changes in testicular DNA into
Testicular cancer is primarily a disease of young white men, and it shows
marked geographic variation. For instance, the incidence is higher among
northern Europeans than central or southern Europeans. Schwartz noted that
grains grown in northern Europe are more likely to be contaminated because
weather conditions during harvest season promote mold.
The highest rate in Europe is in Denmark, 7.8 cases per 100,000 per year.
Consumption of pork products in Denmark is among the highest in the world,
and Danes also eat the most rye, the cereal grain that is most often
contaminated by ochratoxin A.
Another interesting element: testicular cancer is more common among people
of higher socioeconomic levels. These are the groups most likely to
"We propose that exposure to ochratoxin A contaminated food provides a
coherent explanation for much of the descriptive epidemiology of testicular
cancer," Schwartz said, adding that future studies of testicular cancer
"should focus on breastfeeding practices and the consumption of ochratoxin A
containing foods such as cereals, pork products, milk and coffee by mothers
and their male children."
If all this turns out to be correct, Schwartz offers several possible
solutions. Public health efforts may be able to reduce exposure to
ochratoxin A. Alternatively, public health efforts may reduce the
genotoxicity of ochratoxin A exposure. The toxicity of ochratoxin A could be
reduced by giving pregnant women drugs like aspirin or indomethacin or
vitamins A, C and E.
"These agents, in animals at least, markedly reduce the DNA damage caused by
ochratoxin A," Schwartz said. Aspartame, the artificial sweeter, is similar
structurally to ochratoxin A, and is a potent ochratoxin A antagonist.
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
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