Image source: Flickr user Aaron Thompson.

There are few things that are as American as apple pie, but barbequing a good steak or hamburger, or frying up some bacon in the morning for breakfast, comes a very close second. But what if that steak, burger, or, dare I say, even bacon, could eventually kill you?

I know what you're thinking: "We've heard this before! Bacon is high in cholesterol. I get it!"

If only it were that simple.

Et tu, bacon? 
According to the World Health Organization, or WHO, processed meats and red meats, including my beloved bacon, now sit more or less right next to, or just below, tobacco and other highly renowned carcinogens as high-risk factors that can lead to the development of cancer.

WHO's investigation involved nearly two-dozen researchers who examined more than 800 epidemiological studies from around the world. The point of this meta-analysis research was to quantify what, if any, correlations were observed between eating processed meats, red meats, and other items, in relation to 16 different types of cancer.


Image source: Flickr user Kim Ahlstrom.    

As published in the journal Lancet Oncology this past week, WHO researchers determined that enough evidence was present to classify processed meats as "carcinogenic to humans," especially as it pertains to colorectal cancer development. Processed foods including bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and salami would all be ranked alongside cigarette smoking and asbestos as high-risk cancer causing agents. To be clear, eating processed meats won't guarantee a person will develop cancer, but on the whole their chances of developing cancer at some point in their lifetime is much higher.

Red meats, such as steak, were a notch lower on the cancer-causing scale, but still referred to as "probably carcinogenic to humans." In addition to exhibiting a correlation to colorectal cancer, red meat consumption was shown to increase the likelihood of pancreatic and prostate cancer.

One 2011 study, which looked at 28 studies dating back as far as 1966, particularly supported the researchers' thesis. Within this meta-analysis researchers noted a 17% increase in colorectal cancer risk for every 3.5 ounces of red meat consumed daily, and an 18% increase in colorectal cancer risk for every 1.7 ounces of processed meats consumed daily.

Image source: National Cancer Institute.

WHO researchers pinpointed a number of the cancer causing agents, including N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, as the main progenitors of intestinal cancer risk. High-temperature cooking of processed and red meats leads to the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines, which are mutagenic, cancer-causing agents.

Though it should be noted that the conclusion by WHO researchers was not unanimous and that additional studies should be conducted, the assumption generated by the study -- and refuted by the beef industry -- is that processed and red meats could lead to a higher risk of developing cancer, particularly colorectal, pancreatic, and/or prostate cancer, at some point in your lifetime.

Personalized medicine just got a lot more important
Regardless of whether or not WHO's findings caught you a bit off guard, the reality is that cancer incidence rates around the globe are on the rise. In fact, WHO suggests that global cancer rates will grow as much as 75% by 2030, with especially high incidence growth in lower-income countries. This is why personalized medicine is becoming all the more important with each passing day.

Personalized medicine is the idea of throwing out the one-treatment-fits-all approach to handling a disease, such as cancer, and treating the person based on their genetic makeup. Although such an idea reduces the prospective patient pool of cancer therapeutics, it gives those who do qualify for personalized therapies a much higher chance of responding, potentially leading to improved overall quality of life and survival.

Image source: Merck.

We've witnessed the promise of personalized cancer therapeutics with the emergence of cancer immunotherapies like Merck's (NYSE:MRK) Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE:BMY) Opdivo. Cancer immunotherapies work by helping the immune system more effectively identify cancer cells that often go undetected, and kick the immune system into overdrive to efficiently destroy these foreign cells.

Merck and Bristol-Myers have plans to test, or are testing, their immunotherapies in a number of solid tumors (including those mentioned in WHO's aforementioned cancer study), although Keytruda and Opdivo have thus far been approved to treat BRAF V600 mutation-positive metastatic melanoma and advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Both treatments have demonstrated a propensity to be effective in treating advanced NSCLC patients who've express high levels of PD-L1. Not every patient will express PD-L1 at a high level, but the response rate for patients with high PD-L1 expression was multiple times higher than the study average, and it led to survival benefits for both therapies.

Diagnostic tests will also play a key role in helping to identify patients as candidates for targeted therapies. Rapid diagnostic tests that focus on specific proteins or genes can help physicians identify the appropriate treatment pathway most likely to produce results for cancer patients.

Clearly, we'd much prefer to see cancer incidence rates falling instead of rising, but, given the WHO's latest findings, this is an encouraging start that signals drug developers are going to tackle cancer head-on in the coming years.

Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

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