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Flaxseed may help protect against radiation effects

18 August, 2012

ISLAMABAD: Flaxseed, a cheap and safe food item known to be rich in fiber and antioxidants, can also help protect against the damaging effects of radiation, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that a diet of flaxseed given to mice not only protects lung tissues before exposure to radiation, but also can significantly reduce damage after exposure occurs.

In their study, published in BMC Cancer, the researchers fed mice flaxseed either before or up to six weeks after receiving a large radiation dose equivalent to getting about 10,000 X-rays, or what a cancer patient might receive over an entire course of radiation treatment.

Four months after receiving radiation, up to 88 per cent of mice that ate flaxseed were still alive, compared with just 40 per cent of mice who did not eat flaxseed.

Apart from having a better chance of surviving, the mice that ate flaxseed also lost less weight and had a lower risk of inflammation and fibrosis than those who didn`t eat flaxseed, LiveScience reported.

The researchers were particularly interested in finding a cheap, safe supplement to give to people who have been exposed to radiation in the event of a terrorist attack.

"You need to give something that`s really safe as well as easy to deliver to a huge number of people all at once," said Dr Keith Cengel, an assistant professor of radiation oncology, who led the research.

Flaxseed meets these requirements and may provide additional health benefits, including improved heart health.

"It`s as close to a no-brainer as you get," Cengel said. However, the researchers are not certain the protective benefits will translate to people.

Terrorist use of a "dirty bomb" could expose large numbers of people to radiation. This type of bomb disperses radioactive material in the form of an aerosolised powder, and poses great health risks, the researchers said.

One type of lung injury that can follow is called fibrosis, in which scar tissue prevents the lung from being able to expand normally during breathing. This injury can also occur in lung cancer patients who have received too much radiation during treatment.

"This is extremely encouraging," Dr Nagy Elsayyad, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Centre, said of the study`s results.

It`s possible providing flaxseed to lung cancer patients before radiation treatment could allow doctors to increase the radiation dose without increasing the risk of injury, Elsayyad said. "That could translate to better cure rates with radiation."

But some are sceptical about whether flaxseed could be used after a terrorist attack or nuclear accident.

"I think there`s a likelihood it might do some good," said Jacqueline Williams, a radiation expert at the University of Rochester in New York.

"But I think what the decades of research that have gone into such attempts have shown is that a single drug or a single attempt like this is unlikely to be totally effective," Williams said. It`s more likely a combination of agents will be needed to provide protection, she said

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