The lead guitarist of U2, the rock band playing at FedEx Field on Tuesday night, has more on his mind than music. In 2006, The Edge's 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, something that he says sent him “into a complete tailspin.” Sian recovered and is now 19.
The experience heightened the legendary musician's interest in health and cancer, and especially in angiogenesis, which focuses on the formation of blood vessels. In recent years, several anti-angiogenesis drugs have been developed to disrupt the blood supply that cancers need to grow.
Yet The Edge, whose real name is David Howell Evans, is convinced that certain foods can play a similar role, and he's pressing for more research. He's a board member of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group headed by physician William Li, an internist who studied under angiogenesis pioneer Judah Folkman.
Interest in using food as an anti-cancer weapon is intense among consumers looking to reduce their risks. But the idea that foods such as green tea or blueberries can starve tumors is controversial — “unsettled science,” as Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, puts it.
The cancer society avoids saying that any particular food will ward off the disease, though it stresses that eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk. Still, Brawley is enthusiastic about The Edge's emphasis on a healthy diet, saying the recommendations could help combat obesity, which itself is linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Similarly, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins praises The Edge's interest in angiogenesis. (Collins met Monday with Li and the guitarist and joined the latter in playing “Hallelujah” on their respective guitars.) He also notes, however, that “there's no definitive evidence” of certain foods being anti-angiogenic and more research is needed.
During his visit to Washington, The Edge and Li visited Capitol Hill on Monday to argue for more research on the issue. They also talked to The Washington Post. The following has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: How did your daughter's experience affect you?
The Edge: When my daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia, I was, I guess like any parent would be, sent into a complete tailspin. Coming out of that, part of what I was determined to do was to fully understand what this meant.
The good news is that chemotherapy protocols are very well understood and the success rate is high. So you don’t need to try anything different. As it happens, we were able to take advantage of [Li’s expertise] to provide dietary changes to offer additional support to combat the disease.
What I really felt acutely, having brought my daughter through this treatment, is we can do better than chemotherapy. It's brutal, it’s very crude; you basically are killing cancer cells at a slightly higher rate than you are killing normal cells. As a strategy, it seemed like a blunt instrument. I couldn’t imagine that we couldn’t do better.
When I discovered the angiogenesis approach, I thought: “This is part of the future. It might not be the whole future, but it's part of it.”
Q: How are you trying to promote that approach?
The Edge: We’re communicating with scientists from other fields, talking to government officials about what we know and where we see the future and also doing public outreach. … We’re just trying to encourage greater interest in this area.
The emphasis surely has to be on focusing more on prevention, and angiogenesis and diet is an obvious place to look.
Li: We want to use the tools of biotechnology to ask questions about how foods actually work in the body. This is almost a redefinition or reconceptualization of nutrition itself, away from macro- and micronutrients to ask, “What happens to foods when they encounter human cells?”
We are really at the beginning of this era of research to begin understanding how whole foods, combinations of whole foods, and even how they are prepared and even the variations between the different varieties of food can make a difference.
Q: It’s hard to prove that any particular food can prevent cancer. What is the evidence that the specific foods might actually protect people from the disease?
The Edge: Some of it is in the state of being a very good theory, a theory that has a lot of evidence around it, population studies, there are actually laboratory tests that the foundation has funded where you literally grow human cells in a petri dish and see what happens when certain foods are added.
Of course, that wouldn’t pass muster as hard, scientific, FDA-approved proof. But it’s really compelling when you start to see in petri dish that these foods are really having an effect which in some cases rivals pharmacology. What we really need is for the government to step in and fund this research … the system is set up for Big Pharma developing drugs with big profit margins. We don’t want them to stop, but what isn’t being done right now is a lot of funding of greater understanding of these molecules in food.
Li: It’s tempting for all of us in biomedicine to want the magic bullet, the one thing to make everything else go away, but the body of research has shown that both health and disease are much more complicated. We think that food is one of the pieces of the puzzle of life that deserves the kind of modern scientific approach that has taken biotech to where it is today. And when you marry together all the tools that are available with what we put on our plate and the choices we make in the grocery store and the market, we think there is literally an undiscovered country that can contribute to the health of society.
What we’re really trying to do is develop a platform of understanding not just one food but many foods and combinations of foods. One of our first priorities is to systematically study whole, unprocessed foods using laboratory assays that have been used traditionally for drug discovery.
Q: What do you eat?
The Edge: I actually do eat berries every day, different ones, and whole food as much as I can. I eat foods with antiangiogenic properties.