Media Storm in a Coffee Cup

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 17th August 2011

News that drinking coffee can reduce the risk of skin cancer has sent a buzz through the world’s media over the past 24 hours. Australian Food News has been investigating how this media storm was brewed. Meanwhile, other very serious skin cancer breakthrough stories appear to have been left unstirred.

The news kerfuffle about coffee and skin cancer appears to have begun with the release in August 2011 of a research paper, published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAC) of the USA. This was a study of mice that showed caffeine triggers the death of UV-damaged cells, while leaving the healthy cells unharmed.

The study used genetically-engineered mice with a lower amount of a skin protein called ATR. Compared with normal mice, those low in ATR took longer to develop skin cancers. Since caffeine also lowers levels of ATR in humans, the scientists induced that caffeine consumption would result in a reduced risk of skin cancer.

Despite other recent research advances in reducing skin cancer risk gaining little media attention, the research has hit national headlines across the world this week. Several reporters caught up in the hype of the story repeated the same inaccuracy of naming one of the researchers as Dr Alan Coffey. In fact, his correct name is Dr Allan Conney, one of the co-authors of the research paper.

By contrast to this story, there was another less publicized news story two weeks ago when one of Australia’s leading cancer experts, the world-renowned cancer researcher, Professor Ian Frazer, announced a major breakthrough in developing a vaccination for skin cancer. He believes the vaccine could be developed within a year, would eradicate skin cancer completely, but he required A$20 million to fund its testing.

Professor Frazer was the man who invented the cervical cancer vaccination shot. He believes that skin cancer is caused by a virus, as in the case of cervical cancer. Professor Frazer had not been inundated with financial assistance.

Despite Professor Frazer’s major breakthrough, his story appears to have eluded the world media spotlight.

Meanwhile, this week’s story that links a cup of coffee with lowered skin cancer risk bears a strong resemblance to a similar news story several years ago. In 2007, a research paper, also co-authored by Allan Conney and published by the NAC, made the headlines. The research also referred to a study involving genetically-modified mice and also found that mice that consumed caffeine had a higher rate of aptosis (when cells “kill themselves”) in pre-cancerous cells than mice that did not consume caffeine.

Additionally, a research paper by other authors published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology made the news in 2009 linking caffeine consumption with reducing skin cancer risk. This study also used genetically-modified mice and explored the impact of caffeine on ATR levels.

In March 2011, a meta-analysis of cohort studies into coffee consumption and risk of cancers, carried out by researchers from Fudan University Shanghai, suggested that coffee consumption “may reduce the total cancer incidence” and it also “has an inverse association with some type of cancers”.