The purpose of this review is to summarize the most important human clinical trials of antioxidants as cancer prevention agents conducted to date, provide an overview of currently ongoing studies, and discuss future steps needed to advance research in this field. To date there have been several large (at least 7000 participants) trials testing the efficacy of antioxidant supplements in preventing cancer. The specific agents (diet-derived direct antioxidants and essential components of antioxidant enzymes) tested in those trials included β-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C, selenium, retinol, zinc, riboflavin, and molybdenum. None of the completed trials produced convincing evidence to justify the use of traditional antioxidant-related vitamins or minerals for cancer prevention. Our search of ongoing trials identified six projects at various stages of completion. Five of those six trials use selenium as the intervention of interest delivered either alone or in combination with other agents. The lack of success to date can be explained by a variety of factors that need to be considered in the next generation research. These factors include lack of good biological rationale for selecting specific agents of interest; limited number of agents tested to date; use of pharmacological, rather than dietary, doses; and insufficient duration of intervention and follow-up. The latter consideration underscores the need for alternative endpoints that are associated with increased risk of neoplasia (i.e., biomarkers of risk), but are detectable prior to tumor occurrence. Although dietary antioxidants are a large and diverse group of compounds, only a small proportion of candidate agents have been tested. In summary, the strategy of focusing on large high-budget studies using cancer incidence as the endpoint and testing a relatively limited number of antioxidant agents has been largely unsuccessful. This lack of success in previous trials should not preclude us from seeking novel ways of preventing cancer by modulating oxidative balance. On the contrary, the well demonstrated mechanistic link between excessive oxidative stress and carcinogenesis underscores the need for new studies. It appears that future large-scale projects should be preceded by smaller, shorter, less expensive biomarker-based studies that can serve as a link from mechanistic and observational research to human cancer prevention trials. These relatively inexpensive studies would provide human experimental evidence for the likely efficacy, optimum dose, and long-term safety of the intervention of interest that would then guide the design of safe, more definitive large-scale trials.
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