Folate and the risk of colorectal, breast and cervix cancer: the epidemiological evidence

Swiss Med Wkly. 2001 Sep 22;131(37-38):539-49.


It is only recently that folate deficiency has been implicated in the development of cancer. The mechanisms by which folate might protect against cancer are not clear but may relate to its role in DNA methylation and DNA synthesis. All case-control, cohort and intervention trials reported in English, French, or German, on folate intake or blood levels in relation to the risk of colorectal, breast, and cervix cancer were reviewed. Twenty case-control, and 12 nested case-control or cohort studies were identified. The epidemiological studies consistently show an inverse association between intake and/or levels of folate and the frequency of colorectal carcinomas, and less clearly of adenomas. Long-term use of supplements of folate seems to be of greater benefit than dietary intake. The effect of folate seems to be modulated by alcohol, methionine, and MTHFR polymorphisms. Results from animal studies suggest that folate supplementation might decrease or increase cancer risk depending on dosage and timing. Recent studies also suggest an inverse association between folate intake and breast cancer among women who regularly consume alcohol. Conversely, epidemiological evidence remains uncertain for the role of folate in cervical cancer prevention; the results of two intervention trials on rates of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia regression or progression were negative. An effect of folate later in carcinogenesis is not supported by the few (nested) case-control studies on invasive cervical cancer. Some of the conflicting results may be due to the fact that dietary intake or blood levels of folate do not accurately reflect folate concentrations in the cells of cancer origin. Furthermore, only a few studies have taken into account the modulating effect of alcohol, methionine, and MTHFR polymorphisms in their analyses. The observed inverse associations between folate and risk of cancer, on the other hand, may be confounded by various factors, especially by other potentially protective constituents in fruits and vegetables. Ongoing intervention studies can strengthen evidence for causality by excluding such confounding, but the optimal dose, duration, and stage of carcinogenesis and the appropriate (genetically predisposed) study group for folate chemoprevention are not yet defined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / complications*
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / epidemiology*
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk Factors
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / physiopathology