For Eric Hutcheson, a program assistant in the Cancer Prevention Research Program, contributing to cancer research was as easy as eating a bowl of pasta.
Actually, many bowls of pasta.
He took part in a dietary study led by nutritional biochemist Dr. Johanna Lampe that was designed to examine whether a diet rich in certain vegetables boosts the body's detoxifying enzymes that are suspected to play a role in fighting cancer.
Hutcheson is one of thousands of healthy people who play a crucial role in cancer research, said Dr. John Potter, head of the Cancer Prevention Research Program in the Public Health Sciences Division.
"If we want to establish strategies to help people prevent cancer, either on their own or to be used as general recommendations for populations, we have to involve large groups of healthy people in these studies," he said.
Some studies, like that conducted by Lampe, are designed to uncover how a prevention strategy might work.
Researchers know that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with lower risks of certain types of cancers. Scientists like Lampe want to understand why.
To test whether some vegetables increase the activity of enzymes that play a role in eliminating toxic compounds from the body, Lampe recruited participants who were fed a controlled diet.
During four one-week sessions, Hutcheson and other study participants ate their evening meal at Fred Hutchinson, dining on pasta supplemented with one of four types of vegetables.
They also were given prepared breakfasts and lunches to take with them for the following day. At the end of each week, blood and urine samples were collected to analyze enzyme levels.
Thanks to the participants in her study, Lampe discovered that cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage do increase levels of certain detoxifying enzymes.
What's more, she found that genetic differences contributed to how individuals responded to the diet. The findings may someday help people tailor their diets to their cancer susceptibilities.
Hutcheson admits that by the end of each session, something other than pasta began to sound like an appealing choice for dinner.
But in addition to not having to cook at all during each session, he derived another reward.
"Maybe because of my part in the study, scientists will figure out that some aspect of diet will help prevent people from getting cancer," he said.
"It's a nice feeling to say that you were a part of that research."
Want to help DIGEST cancer?
Do certain foods trigger the body's cancer-fighting enzymes? A center feeding study seeks volunteers to look at the influence of a diet high in fruits and vegetables on the function of certain metabolic enzymes.
Researchers in the Public Health Sciences Division are conducting a study, called DIGEST (Dietary Influences on Glucuronidation), to see how the interplay of genes and diet - in particular, a diet rich in specific plant compounds - may affect the function of the body's detoxifying machinery. The results of this study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, could be important in making recommendations about diets that prevent cancer.
About 300 people, ages 20 to 40, are sought for the first half of this two-part study. Participants will provide blood, urine and saliva samples, fill out dietary and health questionnaires and keep a food diary. They also will take acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin (enzyme activity is measured by looking at the breakdown of these drugs).
Those who complete this part of the study - lasting eight days - will receive $40 and a dietary analysis.
Of those initially enrolled, 60 will be asked to participate in the second phase, a 28-day feeding study during which the center will provide all food and beverages (approximate value: $300).
Eligibility to participate in this phase will depend on the participants' genetic pattern of metabolic enzymes as determined by DNA analysis of a blood sample.
The feeding study, conducted in two 14-day sessions, will look at the influence of a diet high in fruits and vegetables on the function of metabolizing enzymes.
Participants will eat dinner at the Hutchinson Center and take home breakfast, lunch and snacks. Participants will provide blood and urine samples, take aspirin and Tylenol, keep a physical-activity record and be weighed several times. Women must track their menstrual cycles. Those who complete the feeding study will receive $200.
All meals, clinic appointments and specimen drop-offs will take place at Met East, 1730 Minor Ave.
For more information about DIGEST, call the study information line at 206-667-2547.