Right upfront, Brigham Young University professor Kim L. O'Neill makes it clear that his research linking cancer and caffeine has nothing to do with religion.
O'Neill, a microbiologist at BYU's Cancer Research Center, published an article last month that suggests caffeine may prohibit cancerous cells from dying. By inhibiting apoptosis, or programmed cell suicide, caffeine may foster the spread of cancerous cells."Some cancers may be caused by the inability of the cells to die rather than uncontrolled cancerous growth," O'Neill said.
However, his research is in no way a crusade against caffeine. He realizes that some people might think that because he works at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his work somehow has a moral aim.
Many members of the LDS Church shun the consumption of caffeine, as well as alcohol and drugs. But O'Neill sees the results of his research in scientific, not moral, terms.
"I'm not worried about whether we should drink Coca-Cola or coffee or tea," he said. "That's up to each individual.
"I'm looking at the basic science."
O'Neill, who ultimately seeks to find the cure for cancer by identifying its causes, has several reasons for studying caffeine. He studied its relationship with cancer even before coming to BYU from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland in 1992.
"Caffeine has been known to be involved in the cancer process for some time," he said. "It's a common ingredient and it's never been identified as a carcinogen."
Cells are programmed to live and replicate themselves, and also to die when they become damaged, O'Neill said. If agents like caffeine prevent their natural death, the diseased cells can pass their damaged DNA on to new cells.
"That can be very detrimental and may lead to cancer," O'Neill said.
An article by O'Neill and former BYU graduate student Bryan S. Poe appeared in the December edition of "Cancer Letters," an Irish journal published by Elsevier Science. O'Neill said the findings in the article are significant but not a huge breakthrough in the overall fight against cancer.
"It's just a small piece in a big puzzle," he said.
O'Neill plans to conduct further research on just how caffeine prevents programmed cell death. That may lead to discoveries about ways to enhance apoptosis, and those methods might prove effective as therapeutic treatment in some cancer cases.
O'Neill's research involved introducing caffeine to leukemia cells, followed by a heat shock procedure designed to induce programmed cell suicide. Normally, breaks in the DNA would show before apoptosis. But the cancerous cells that had taken in caffeine didn't die.
The tests were conducted using the comet assay, which O'Neill said allows identification of which cells are apoptotic and which are not. Previous research by O'Neill and others using the comet assay showed that caffeine may also inhibit G2 delay, which is the time cells give themselves to repair their own damaged DNA.