Lycopene and prostate cancer

Can it help?

Lycopene (a beta-carotene) is an antioxidant that is rich in “red family” foods like tomatoes, watermelons, and pink grapefruits. It’s also in apricots, persimmons, papaya, and guava.

Antioxidants are beneficial because they may prevent the risk of cancer by blocking the actions of free radicals that have been associated with causing cell damage.

Several years ago, the general consensus seemed to be that this antioxidant might help prevent prostate cancer.

However, more recent research (and subsequent opinions) appear to be mixed about whether either foods or supplements that contain this antioxidant can help prevent prostate cancer, or slow or prevent prostate cancer progression.

For example, the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, a randomized National Cancer Institute trial, concluded that it does not effectively prevent prostate cancer.

However, some believe that the PLCO study just confirms that there is no benefit when taken for the short-term. Data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS) and the Physicians' Health Study (PHS), which demonstrated that 2-4 servings of tomato sauce a week consumed at a steady rate over many years may prevent prostate tumors from progressing to more advanced stages.

The results of the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, which studied finasteride for prostate cancer prevention (a treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia), also did not support the use of this antioxidant as a way to prevent prostate cancer.

 More lycopene studies are needed

A recent article by Holzapfel et al suggests that it has proven benefits in laboratory studies, but the benefits need to be proven in humans. 

Multiple studies have provided conflicting reports:

  • Vaishampayan et al concluded that lycopene (and soy isoflavones) may have activity in prostate cancer patients with PSA relapse disease and may delay progression of both hormone-refractory and hormone-sensitive prostate cancer, in their small study where 38 men took a 15 mg supplement twice day for 6 months
  • Hwang et al determined that it did not protect against oxidative DNA damage in LNCaP human prostate cancer cells

  • In a study of 18 men who had advanced hormone-refractory prostate cancer, Schwenke et al concluded that there was no clinically relevant benefit for men who took a 15 mg supplement every day for six months

  • A report by Kristal et al reported that neither dietary nor supplemental intakes of nutrients often suggested for prostate cancer prevention, including lycopene, were significantly associated with cancer risk.

It will take more studies to confirm if there is an overall benefit, including whether supplements offer the same benefit as foods that are rich in this antioxidant.

Studies are also needed to determine if raw “red family” foods are more beneficial than cooked foods.

It is interesting, however, that Tang et al have suggested that this antioxidant phytochemical enhances the chemotherapy drug docetaxel's effect in castration-resistant prostate cancer associated with insulin-like growth factor I receptor levels, based on experimental models.

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Kristal AR, Till C, Platz EA, Song X, King IB, Neuhouser ML, Ambrosone CB, Thompson IM. Serum lycopene concentration and prostate cancer risk: results from the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial.Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2011;20(4):638-46. Epub 2011 Feb 18.

Prostate Cancer Foundation. Interpreting the Data From PLCO.
Interpreting_the_Data_From_PLCO.htm. Accessed April 2, 2009.

Schwenke C, Ubrig B, Thürmann P, Eggersmann C, Roth S. Lycopene for advanced hormone refractory prostate cancer: a prospective, open phase II pilot study. J Urol. 2009;181(3):1098-103.

Vaishampayan U, Hussain M, Banerjee M, Seren S, Sarkar FH, Fontana J, Forman JD, Cher ML, Powell I, Pontes JE, Kucuk O. Lycopene and soy isoflavones in the treatment of prostate cancer. Nutr Cancer. 2007;59(1):1-7.

Always consult a medical professional.