Research Focus: Ovarian Cancer

Dale "Buck" Hales, PhD


Dale "Buck" Hales, PhD, was in the grocery store and noticed "omega eggs." He wondered how farmers were able to get the chickens to lay omega-rich eggs. The answer? Flaxseed, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties

 Flaxseed may hold the key to reducing the prevalence and severity of ovarian cancer, according to Dr. Hales, professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. He also is professor of gynecology/obstetrics and a member of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU.  

Using laying hens and research models, Hales found that long-term intake of flaxseed lowered the expression of two enzymes that may be involved in the formation of cancerous tumors. His was the first long-term study of the connections between flaxseed diet to prevent ovarian cancer in the laying hen.

In a four-year, NIH study, hens were fed a diet enriched with flaxseed for four years. The result was that fewer hens got cancer, and those that were diagnosed had fewer late-stage tumors, less metastasis and improved survival rates. Levels of two enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2 protein, were lower compared to the control group.

(Gynecologic Oncology May 2013):

Flaxseed is the richest vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is often cited as providing a number of health benefits. Hales says flaxseed’s anti-inflammatory properties are at work. “Not only did the flaxseed diet reduce the incidence of ovarian cancer development, but it lowered the severity of the cancer in the few hens that did get cancer,” Hales said.

Hens ovulate almost daily. “By the time a hen is 2.5 years old, it has ovulated 300-400 times.” Importantly, hens have been found to spontaneously get ovarian cancer, and their tumors are very similar to human tumors.  

“We believe that flaxseed targets the inflammation that occurs with each ovulation cycle and lowers the COX-1 enzyme activity and lowers PGE2,” Hales said. This study will help advance research that will lead to future clinical trials.   

Ovarian cancer is the most fatal of the gynecological cancers and is the fifth leading cause of death among women. It presents with few symptoms until it is in the later stages. About 20,000 women are diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  

“Women who have a high risk of developing ovarian cancer could consider adding flaxseed to their diet. More studies will help us further prove the link between flaxseed and lowered incidence of ovarian cancer,” Hales said.

Read more about Dr. Hales in Aspects.

About Dr. Hales

Hales’s research has been funded for more than 25 years by the NIH, Department of Defense, American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society. His research has focused on the role of inflammation and oxidative stress in the etiology of hormonal carcinogenesis and the prevention and treatment of ovarian cancer with functional food-based diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids and phytoestrogens.

Hales joined the SIU faculty in 2009. He completed his doctoral degree in biochemistry, biophysics and genetics at the University of Colorado (UC) Health Sciences Center in Denver (1983).  Hales earned his bachelor’s at the UC in Boulder (1977).