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Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements

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Eating healthy
Credit: iStock/Artfully79

More than half of U.S. adults take dietary supplements [1]. I don’t, but some of my family members do. But does popping all of these vitamins, minerals, and other substances really lead to a longer, healthier life? A new nationwide study suggests it doesn’t.

Based on an analysis of survey data gathered from more than 27,000 people over a six-year period, the NIH-funded study found that individuals who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to food consumption.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess [2]. For instance, people who took more than 1,000 milligrams of supplemental calcium per day were more likely to die of cancer than those who didn’t.

The researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, were intrigued that so many people take dietary supplements, despite questions about their health benefits. While the overall evidence had suggested no benefits or harms, results of a limited number of studies had suggested that high doses of certain supplements could be harmful in some cases.

To take a broader look, Zhang’s team took advantage of survey data from tens of thousands of U.S. adults, age 20 or older, who had participated in six annual cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010. NHANES participants were asked whether they’d used any dietary supplements in the previous 30 days. Those who answered yes were then asked to provide further details on the specific product(s) and how long and often they’d taken them.

Just over half of participants reported use of dietary supplements in the previous 30 days. Nearly 40 percent reported use of multivitamins containing three or more vitamins.

Nutrient intake from foods was also assessed. Each year, the study’s participants were asked to recall what they’d eaten over the last 24 hours. The researchers then used that information to calculate participants’ nutrient intake from food. Those calculations indicated that more than half of the study’s participants had inadequate intake of vitamins D, E, and K, as well as choline and potassium.

Over the course of the study, more than 3,600 of the study’s participants died. Those deaths included 945 attributed to cardiovascular disease and 805 attributed to cancer. The next step was to look for any association between the nutrient intake and the mortality data.

The researchers found the use of dietary supplements had no influence on mortality. People with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were less likely to die. However, that relationship only held for nutrient intake from food consumption.

People who reported taking more than 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day were more likely to die of cancer. There was also evidence that people who took supplemental vitamin D at a dose exceeding 10 micrograms (400 IU) per day without a vitamin D deficiency were more likely to die from cancer.

It’s worth noting that the researchers did initially see an association between the use of dietary supplements and a lower risk of death due to all causes. However, those associations vanished when they accounted for other potentially confounding factors.

For example, study participants who reported taking dietary supplements generally had a higher level of education and income. They also tended to enjoy a healthier lifestyle. They ate more nutritious food, were less likely to smoke or drink alcohol, and exercised more. So, it appears that people who take dietary supplements are likely to live a longer and healthier life for reasons that are unrelated to their supplement use.

While the study has some limitations, including the difficulty in distinguishing association from causation, and a reliance on self-reported data, its findings suggest that the regular use of dietary supplements should not be recommended for the general U.S. population. Of course, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that certain subgroups of people, including perhaps those following certain special diets or with known nutritional deficiencies, may benefit.

These findings serve up a reminder that dietary supplements are no substitute for other evidence-based approaches to health maintenance and eating nutritious food. Right now, the best way to live a long and healthy life is to follow the good advice offered by the rigorous and highly objective reviews provided by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force [3]. Those tend to align with what I hope your parents offered: eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruits, veggies, and healthy sources of calcium and protein. Don’t smoke. Use alcohol in moderation. Avoid recreational drugs. Get plenty of exercise.


[1] Trends in Dietary Supplement Use Among US Adults From 1999-2012. Kantor ED, Rehm CD, Du M, White E, Giovannucci EL. JAMA. 2016 Oct 11;316(14):1464-1474.

[2] Association among dietary supplement use, nutrient intake, and mortality among U.S. adults. Chen F, Du M, Blumberg JB, Ho Chui KK, Ruan M, Rogers G, Shan Z, Zeng L, Zhang. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Apr 9. [Epub ahead of print].

[3] Vitamin Supplementation to Prevent Cancer and CVD: Preventive Medication. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, February 2014.


Office of Dietary Supplements (NIH)

Healthy Eating Plan (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (Rockville, MD)

Fang Fang Zhang (Tufts University, Boston)

NIH Support: National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

New Target for Cancer Immunotherapy: Exosomes

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It was once a central tenet of biology that RNA molecules did their work inside the cell. But it’s now clear that RNA molecules are also active outside the cell, with potentially major implications for our health. To learn more about these unrecognized roles, the NIH Common Fund has launched the Extracellular RNA (exRNA) Communication Program.

This month, members of this research consortium described their latest progress in unraveling the secrets of exRNA in a group of 18 papers in the Cell family of journals. And it’s not just RNA that the consortium is studying, it’s also proteins. Among the many exciting results just published is the serendipitous discovery that proteins carried inside tiny, bubble-like vesicles, called exosomes, may influence a cancer’s response to immunotherapy [1]. The work sheds light on why certain cancers are resistant to immunotherapy and points to new strategies for unleashing the immune system in the fight against cancer.

The new findings center on a type of immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors. They are monoclonal antibodies produced by industry that can boost the immune system’s ability to attack and treat cancer.

One of those antibodies specifically targets a protein, called PD-1, on the surface of certain immune cells. When PD-1 binds a similarly named protein, called PD-L1, on the surface of another cell, the interaction prevents immune cells from attacking. Some tumors seem to have learned this and load up on PD-L1 to evade the immune system.

That’s where checkpoint inhibitors come in. By blocking the interaction between PD-1 and PD-L1, the treatment removes a key check on the immune system, allowing certain immune cells to wake up and attack the tumor.

Checkpoint inhibitors work better in some cancer types than in others. In melanoma, for example, up to about 30 percent of patients respond to checkpoint inhibitor therapy. But in prostate cancer, response rates are in the single digits.

Researchers led by Robert Blelloch, a member of the exRNA consortium and a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, wanted to know why. He and his team looked for clues in RNA within the cells taken from immunotherapy-resistant prostate cancers.

As published in Cell, the researchers got their first hint of something biologically intriguing in an apparent discrepancy in their data. As they expected from prior work, PD-L1 protein was present in the treatment-resistant cancers. But the PD-L1 messenger RNAs (mRNA), which serve as templates for producing the protein, told an unexpected story. The resistant cancer cells made far more PD-L1 mRNAs than needed to produce the modest levels of PD-L1 proteins detected inside the cells.

Where was the missing PD-L1? Blelloch’s team found it in exosomes. The cancer cells were packaging large quantities of the protein inside exosomes and secreting them out of the cell to other parts of the body.

In additional studies with a mouse model of prostate cancer, the researchers found that those PD-L1-packed exosomes travel through the blood and lymphatic systems to lymph nodes, the sites where immune cells become activated. Once there, PD-L1-laden exosomes put the immune system to sleep, preventing certain key cells from locating and attacking the cancer, including the primary tumor and places where it may have spread.

In important follow up studies, the researchers edited two genes in cancer cells to prevent them from producing exosomes. And, in the absence of exosomes, the cells no longer formed tumors. Importantly, both edited and unedited cells still produced PD-L1, but only those that exported PD-L1 in exosomes disarmed the immune system. Studies in a mouse model of immunotherapy-resistant colorectal cancer yielded similar results.

The new evidence suggests that blocking the release of PD-L1 in exosomes, even temporarily, might allow the immune system to launch a successful and sustained attack against a cancer.

Blelloch notes that many intriguing questions remain. For example, it’s not yet clear why antibodies that target PD-L1 on cancer cells don’t disable PD-L1 found in exosomes. The good news is that the new findings suggest it may be possible to find small molecules that do target PD-L1-packed exosomes, unleashing the immune system against cancers that don’t respond to existing checkpoint inhibitors. In fact, Blelloch’s team is already screening for small molecules that might fit the bill.

Since its launch about five years ago, the exRNA Communication Program has published an impressive 480 peer-reviewed papers, including the latest work in the Cell family of journals. I’d encourage readers to click on some of the other excellent work. I hear that another batch of papers will be published later this year.


[1] Suppression of exosomal PD-L induces systemic anti-tumor immunity and memory. Poggio M, Hu T, Pai CC, Chu B, Belair CD, Chang A, Montabana E, Lang UE, Fu Q, Fong L, Blelloch R. Cell. 2019 Apr 4;177(2):414-427.


Video: Unlocking the Mysteries of RNA Communication (Common Fund/NIH)

Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Blelloch Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Drug Abuse

Detecting Cancer with a Herringbone Nanochip

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Herringbone lab on a chip
Caption: Lab on a chip with herringbone pattern. Inset shows exosomes.
Credit: Yong Zeng, University of Kansas, Lawrence and Kansas City

The herringbone motif is familiar as the classic, V-shaped patterned weave long popular in tweed jackets. But the nano-sized herringbone pattern seen here is much more than a fashion statement. It helps to solve a tricky design problem for a cancer-detecting “lab-on-a-chip” device.

A research team, led by Yong Zeng, University of Kansas, Lawrence, and Andrew Godwin at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City. previously developed a lab-on-a-chip that senses exosomes. They are tiny bubble-shaped structures that most mammalian cells secrete constantly into the bloodstream [1]. Once thought of primarily as trash bags used by cells to rid themselves of waste products, exosomes carry important molecular information (RNA, protein, and metabolites) used by cells to communicate and influence the behavior of other cells.

What’s also interesting, tumor cells produce more exosomes than healthy cells. That makes these 30-to-150-nanometer structures (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) potentially useful for detecting cancer. In fact, these NIH-funded researchers found that their microfluidic device can detect exosomes from ovarian cancer within a 2-microliter blood sample. That’s just 1/25th of a drop!

But there was a technical challenge. When such tiny samples are placed into microfluidic channels, the fluid and any particles within it tend to flow in parallel layers without any mixing between them. As a result, exosomes can easily pass through undetected, without ever touching the biosensors on the surface of the chip.

That’s where the herringbone comes in. As reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering, when fluid flows over those 3D herringbone structures, it produces a whirlpool-like effect [2]. As a result, exosomes are more reliably swept into contact with the biosensors.

The team’s distinctive herringbone structures also increase the surface area within the chip. Because the surface is also porous, it allows fluid to drain out slowly to further encourage exosomes to reach the biosensors.

Zeng’s team put their “lab-on-a-chip” to the test using blood samples from 20 patients with ovarian cancer and 10 age-matched controls. The chip was able to detect rapidly the presence of exosomal proteins known to be associated with ovarian cancer.

The researchers report that their device is sensitive enough to detect just 10 exosomes in a 1-microliter sample. It also could be easily adapted to detect exosomal proteins associated with other cancers, and perhaps other conditions as well.

Zeng and colleagues haven’t mentioned whether they’re also looking into trying other geometric patterns in their designs. But the next time you see a tweed jacket, just remember that there’s more to its herringbone pattern than meets the eye.


[1] Ultrasensitive microfluidic analysis of circulating exosomes using a nanostructured graphene oxide/polydopamine coating. Zhang P, He M, Zeng Y. Lab Chip. 2016 Aug 2;16(16):3033-3042.

[2] Ultrasensitive detection of circulating exosomes with a 3D-nanopatterned microfluidic chip. Zhang P, Zhou X, He M, Shang Y, Tetlow AL, Godwin AK, Zeng Y. Nature Biomedical Engineering. February 25, 2019.


Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer—Patient Version (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Cancer Screening Overview—Patient Version (NCI/NIH)

Extracellular RNA Communication (Common Fund/NIH)

Zeng Lab (University of Kansas, Lawrence)

Godwin Laboratory (University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

Using Artificial Intelligence to Detect Cervical Cancer

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Doctor reviewing cell phone
Credit: gettyimages/Dean Mitchell

My last post highlighted the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to create an algorithm capable of detecting 10 different kinds of irregular heart rhythms. But that’s just one of the many potential medical uses of AI. In this post, I’ll tell you how NIH researchers are pairing AI analysis with smartphone cameras to help more women avoid cervical cancer.

In work described in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute [1], researchers used a high-performance computer to analyze thousands of cervical photographs, obtained more than 20 years ago from volunteers in a cancer screening study. The computer learned to recognize specific patterns associated with pre-cancerous and cancerous changes of the cervix, and that information was used to develop an algorithm for reliably detecting such changes in the collection of images. In fact, the AI-generated algorithm outperformed human expert reviewers and all standard screening tests in detecting pre-cancerous changes.

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Cervical cancer screening—first with Pap smears and now also using HPV testing—have greatly reduced deaths from cervical cancer. But this cancer still claims the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. women each year, with higher frequency among women who are black or older [2]. Around the world, more than a quarter-million women die of this preventable disease, mostly in poor and remote areas [3].

These troubling numbers have kept researchers on the lookout for low cost, but easy-to-use, tools that could be highly effective at detecting HPV infections most likely to advance to cervical cancer. Such tools would also need to work well in areas with limited resources for sample preparation and lab analysis. That’s what led to this collaboration involving researchers from NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Global Good, Bellevue, WA, which is an Intellectual Ventures collaboration with Bill Gates to invent life-changing technologies for the developing world.

Global Good researchers contacted NCI experts hoping to apply AI to a large dataset of cervical images. The NCI experts suggested an 18-year cervical cancer screening study in Costa Rica. The NCI-supported project, completed in the 1990s, generated nearly 60,000 cervical images, later digitized by NIH’s National Library of Medicine and stored away safely.

The researchers agreed that all these images, obtained in a highly standardized way, would serve as perfect training material for a computer to develop a detection algorithm for cervical cancer. This type of AI, called machine learning, involves feeding tens of thousands of images into a computer equipped with one or more high-powered graphics processing units (GPUs), similar to something you’d find in an Xbox or PlayStation. The GPUs allow the computer to crunch large sets of visual data in the images and devise a set of rules, or algorithms, that allow it to learn to “see” physical features.

Here’s how they did it. First, the researchers got the computer to create a convolutional neural network. That’s a fancy way of saying that they trained it to read images, filter out the millions of non-essential bytes, and retain the few hundred bytes in the photo that make it uniquely identifiable. They fed 1.28 million color images covering hundreds of common objects into the computer to create layers of processing ability that, like the human visual system, can distinguish objects and their qualities.

Once the convolutional neural network was formed, the researchers took the next big step: training the system to see the physical properties of a healthy cervix, a cervix with worrisome cellular changes, or a cervix with pre-cancer. That’s where the thousands of cervical images from the Costa Rican screening trial literally entered the picture.

When all these layers of processing ability were formed, the researchers had created the “automated visual evaluation” algorithm. It went on to identify with remarkable accuracy the images associated with the Costa Rican study’s 241 known precancers and 38 known cancers. The algorithm’s few minor hiccups came mainly from suboptimal images with faded colors or slightly blurred focus.

These minor glitches have the researchers now working hard to optimize the process, including determining how health workers can capture good quality photos of the cervix with a smartphone during a routine pelvic exam and how to outfit smartphones with the necessary software to analyze cervical photos quickly in real-world settings. The goal is to enable health workers to use a smartphone or similar device to provide women with cervical screening and treatment during a single visit.

In fact, the researchers are already field testing their AI-inspired approach on smartphones in the United States and abroad. If all goes well, this low-cost, mobile approach could provide a valuable new tool to help reduce the burden of cervical cancer among underserved populations.

The day that cervical cancer no longer steals the lives of hundreds of thousands of women a year worldwide will be a joyful moment for cancer researchers, as well as a major victory for women’s health.


[1] An observational study of Deep Learning and automated evaluation of cervical images for cancer screening. Hu L, Bell D, Antani S, Xue Z, Yu K, Horning MP, Gachuhi N, Wilson B, Jaiswal MS, Befano B, Long LR, Herrero R, Einstein MH, Burk RD, Demarco M, Gage JC, Rodriguez AC, Wentzensen N, Schiffman M. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2019 Jan 10. [Epub ahead of print]

[2] “Study: Death Rate from Cervical Cancer Higher Than Thought,” American Cancer Society, Jan. 25, 2017.

[3] “World Cancer Day,” World Health Organization, Feb. 2, 2017.


Cervical Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Global Good (Intellectual Ventures, Bellevue, WA)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Library of Medicine

Standing With a Remarkable Young Man

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Francis Collins and Andrew Lee

It was a pleasure to participate in presenting Andrew Lee with the Charles A. Sanders, M.D., Partnership Award at the annual fall board dinner of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). The dinner was held on October 24 in Bethesda, MD. The 22-year-old Lee uses his passion for cars to travel the country to raise awareness and funds for rare kidney cancer research in children and young adults. In just over two years, Lee has turned his Driven to Cure, Inc. into an active grassroots movement that has made generous donations to help advance cutting-edge kidney cancer research conducted by the National Cancer Institute at the NIH Clinical Center. The Charles A. Sanders, M.D., Partnership Award is named for the former chairman of the FNIH Board of Directors. Credit: FNIH

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