This hypothesis paper reviews diverse evidence suggesting that intracolonic production of oxygen radicals may play a role in carcinogenesis. The hypothesis began to evolve when the author made the chance discovery that 1/10,000 dilutions of feces generated detectable quantities of highly reactive hydroxyl radicals (HO). The rate of HO formation, detected using DMSO as a molecular probe, was quite remarkable, corresponding to that which would be produced by over 10,000 rads of gamma irradiation per day, absorbed in the periphery of the fecal mass adjacent to the mucosa. The relatively high concentrations of iron in feces, together with the ability of bile pigments to act as iron chelators that support Fenton chemistry, may very well permit efficient HO generation from superoxide and hydrogen peroxide produced by bacterial metabolism. Such free radical generation in feces could provide a missing link in our understanding of the etiology of colon cancer: the oxidation of procarcinogens either by fecal HO, or by secondary peroxyl radicals (ROO) to form active carcinogens or mitogenic tumor promotors. Intracolonic free radical formation may explain the high incidence of cancer in the colon and rectum, compared to other regions of the GI tract, as well as the observed correlations of a higher incidence of colon cancer with red meat in the diet, which increases stool iron, and with excessive fat in the diet, which may increase the fecal content of procarcinogens and bile pigments.


This is the author accepted manuscript version of Babbs, C.F., Hypothesis paper: Free radicals and the etiology of colon cancer, Free Radical Biology & Medicine 8, 191-200, 1990. Copyright Elsevier, it is made available here CC-BY-NC-ND, and the version of record is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0891-5849(90)90091-V.

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