When Jane Teas of USC's Cancer Research Center was browsing The Lancet medical journal about 30 years ago, she found a letter to the editor that would forever change the way she approached breast cancer research.
In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Teas spoke with The Daily Gamecock about her research and how she was inspired to study a plant that most wouldn't associate with breast cancer: seaweed.
"I started off 30 years ago studying how doctors had thought about breast cancer and what treatments they had tried," Teas said. "[The Lancet] is a great medical publication because it has letters to the editor from general practitioners. It was a nice snapshot of medical practice."
The letter Teas came across mentioned the ancient Egyptians' use of seaweed. She called this her "aha moment," because that's when she first thought about the possibility of seaweed affecting breast cancer cells.
"Women in Japan eat seaweed and have a quarter the rate of breast cancer as American women," Teas said. "If they do get breast cancer, they live longer."
Teas has since been doing research to determine how including seaweed in one's diet may slow the progress and development of breast cancer.
Her first study on this idea involved rats as test subjects, half of which were fed seaweed. When the rats were given breast cancer carcinogens, the ones that had been fed seaweed took twice as long to develop tumors.
In another study, Teas found a link between seaweed consumption and estrogen levels, which she said is a large factor contributing to breast cancer progression. She also studied the effect of seaweed in combination with soy.
"Seaweed made soy three times more effective in producing protective phytoestrogen in the body," Teas said. "The combination is really important. Seaweed has all these chemicals in it that just are not found in ground plants."
Teas' most recent study found a link between seaweed consumption and four proteins that are as yet unidentified because of expenses. When 15 women were given seaweed capsules for a month, their levels of two of the proteins went up while the other two went down.
"It's interesting that this tablespoon of seaweed could make a difference," Teas said.
Teas acknowledged, however, that seaweed is a large part of the culture in Asia and is not as well-liked by Americans. One way to include it in one's diet is by eating sushi or seaweed miso soup, she said.
The taste for seaweed, she said, must be developed in childhood for people to really enjoy eating it.
"We really would have to start at nursery school and provide seaweed snacks," Teas said. "I don't think most American adults will ever really crave seaweed."