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Last Updated: 04/05/13

Mentoring Helps Researcher Pursue Study of Ginger for Preventing Colorectal Cancer

Center for Cancer Training

For at least 2,000 years, people have used ginger as a medicinal herb. In Western herbal medicine, ginger is used mainly as a remedy for digestive disorders. However, the prevalence of foods such as ginger, garlic, and chilies in the diets of people in southeast Asian countries is thought to contribute to the reduced occurrence of several types of cancer, including colon cancer, in that region. Furthermore, studies in animals have shown that ginger can prevent the development of colon cancer, leading some researchers to ask whether ginger can help prevent colorectal cancer in humans.

One researcher hoping to answer that question is Suzanna Zick, N.D., M.P.H., an assistant research professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. With sup­port from a 5-year Mentored Career Development Award* from NCI, Dr. Zick has been doing a series of preliminary studies that she hopes will lead to a large clinical trial examining ginger’s ability to prevent colorectal cancer or prevent its recurrence in people at normal or high risk of developing the disease.

Dr. Zick’s interest in the medicinal properties of ginger began with research she did on whether ginger could prevent nausea in adults who were receiving chemotherapy. As a member of a research group that studies cancer prevention, she became interested in ginger’s possible cancer-preventing properties. “I’m very keen about wellness and prevention,” she said, “and thought it would be wonderful to be able to use something that tasted good to help prevent cancer.”

The NCI career award “really kick-started and broadened my research career,” said Dr. Zick, a naturopathic physician. “It gave me the ability and time to develop new research skills, to understand the theories behind the research, and to develop grant-writing and manuscript-writing skills—all those things that we’re supposed to be able to do to develop into independent scientists,” she explained.

Because a diverse set of skills is needed to do rigorous studies of dietary supplements for cancer prevention, Dr. Zick has worked with five research mentors with different areas of expertise. With help from those mentors, she learned skills ranging from how to measure biological markers of disease in human tissue samples to how to carefully design cancer preven­tion studies. Her primary mentor, also in Michigan’s family medicine department, was Mack Ruffin, M.D., M.P.H., whose research interests include cancer che­moprevention. Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other substances to reduce the risk of cancer or delay its development or recurrence.

Dr. Zick also worked with a mentor who studies the effects of dietary factors on cancer risk and also does laboratory-based research to analyze biological mark­ers of risk. She even spent time watching a senior clinician perform colonoscopies, so she could learn to identify precancerous growths or actual cancers in the colon.

“Right now, there is no treatment that prevents colon cancer in either high-risk or normal individuals,” Dr. Zick noted. “We know some things work in epidemiological studies, but that doesn’t tell us for sure what will work in a clinical setting.”

Dr. Zick is interested in a nutritional approach to cancer prevention, which might involve a combina­tion of diet plus capsules or pills containing dietary supplements shown to prevent cancer. In the case of colon cancer, that might include a capsule contain­ing powdered ginger, Dr. Zick said, or perhaps ginger ale, ginger tea, or ginger candy for individuals those who don’t like taking pills. Because it can be hard to convince people to take pills or make dietary changes to prevent a disease they don’t have and may never get, Dr. Zick said, “you have to make [this approach] as flexible, appealing, and low toxicity as possible. Giving people options is one way to increase the chance they will actually make these changes.”

*Grant Number: 5K07CA102592-05