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Steven Clinton, MD, Ph.D.

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Engineering A New Crop Of Cancer-Fighting Foods

Scientists breed foods to boost anti-cancer nutrients, patients tend gardens

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) November 2012 – The plump red tomatoes Cheryl Creech sliced in her kitchen were no ordinary tomatoes.  These tomatoes came from the seeds she planted last spring, and from the vines she helped prune throughout the summer.  And as she sat down to eat them, she was literally enjoying the fruits of her labor.

“To be able to go to a garden and pick what you’re going to have for dinner is an amazing experience,” said Creech, “and working in that particular garden was an honor to me.”

The garden Creech is referring to is a two acre plot of land that sits in the middle of a farm near the campus of The Ohio State University.  It is a garden planted, maintained and harvested by cancer patients.  

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Creech says she often found herself in the garden, if for no other reason, than to help take her mind off her treatment.  “It was therapy for me,” she said.  “I would just come over, put some gloves on, weed a little, and maybe take home a tomato to eat for lunch.”

But beyond having access to fresh fruits and vegetables, this garden also allows cancer patients to harvest life lessons, like the important role food plays in their health.

“An experience with cancer can be turned into a very teachable moment,” said Steven K. Clinton, MD, PhD of Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital.  “It’s a time when folks really do re-evaluate their lifestyle, their diet and nutrition.  This garden is a wonderful opportunity to help educate some of our cancer survivors about healthy eating habits.”

Having grown up in a farming community, the idea of planting, picking and eating fresh foods comes naturally to Clinton.  Now, as a director of Ohio State’s Food Innovation Center, he’s hoping to take that concept a step further.

“We are working to create fruits and vegetables that have the most possible anti-cancer activity,” said Clinton.  “So, we have doctors and food scientists working together to cross-breed foods that will have the greatest possible impact for consumers.”

For example, researchers at Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital have studied extensively a chemical in tomatoes called lycopene that has been shown to help reduce the risk of colon cancer.¹  So, they are engineering tomatoes to contain highly concentrated levels of lycopene, to make them even more potent cancer-fighters.

“We’ve really challenged our plant geneticists and horticulture researchers to think about these foods in a whole new way,” said Clinton.  “Every step of the way, from the farmer’s gate to the consumer’s plate, is an area for research with our agricultural scientists.”It’s the same concept with foods like black raspberries, which scientists at Ohio State have shown can help fight esophageal and colon cancers.²

And as they work to develop these super-foods, patients are pitching in.  “Some of our patients are actually participating in the clinical trials with the new food products,” said Clinton.  “So as we work to enrich these foods with the most anti-cancer ingredients possible, they’re helping us fine-tune them.”

¹Tomato-based food products for prostate cancer prevention: what have we learned? Cancer and Metastasis Reviews, Volume 29, Issue 3, September 2010.  Online: 

²Effect of Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis L.) Extract Variation Conditioned by Cultivar, Production Site, and Fruit Maturity Stage on Colon Cancer Cell Poliferation.  Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry,  Volume 59, Number 5, March 2011.  Online: 




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