Wake up and smell the coffee

Barbara Stefanska gave up her morning java ritual several years ago when medical reports hinted that it might not be good for our health. But thanks to her own research, she’s waking up and smelling the coffee again.

Stefanska, an assistant professor of nutrition science and a member of a cancer prevention group in the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, is focusing her research on epigenetic changes to our DNA that occur from environmental exposures. Unlike genetic mutations, which can only be reversed through gene therapy, epigenetic changes — which don’t affect the underlying genetic code — can be reversed through simple changes like medications and diet.

A number of studies have suggested that bioactive compounds present in food and herbs can modulate gene expression. “My hypothesis is that these compounds can target epigenetic components in our DNA and in this way prevent disease,” she says.

Other recent studies have linked the consumption of coffee — caffeinated or not — with a decrease in cancer rates. While those lower rates have been found in a number of cancers, a particularly important one is primary liver cancer.

“People with cirrhosis have a very high chance of developing liver cancer, but coffee consumption has been shown to reduce cirrhosis,” Stefanska says. “And in this way it reduces the risk of primary liver cancer.”

But what about coffee makes it so special? Stefanska suspects it could be polyphenols, compounds with antioxidant properties that are abundant in plant-based foods. She’s investigating how the polyphenols chlorogenic and caffeic acids might delay cancer development and/or its progression by modifying the epigenome for the good.

Stefanska has found some confirmation that the phenolic acids help protect against cancer development. But the mechanisms aren’t clear. “So we need more evidence,” she says. If further research bears out, she hopes that polyphenols like phenolic acids can be manufactured into supplements that will be recommended by physicians for daily use.

“But I’m more interested in changing dietary habits,” says Stefanska, who drinks a demitasse of espresso most mornings before heading into the lab. “I want to study the natural compounds without any modifications to show people how the compound in this food is beneficial and why they should increase their consumption of this food or include it in their dietary schedule.”

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