Am J Clin Nutr 1996 (Nov); 64 (5): 772–777
Santos MS, Meydani SN, Leka L, Wu D, Fotouhi N,
Meydani M, Hennekens CH, Gaziano JM
Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center
on Aging at Tufts University,
Boston, Boston, MA 02111, USA
Natural killer (NK) cell activity has been postulated to be an immunologic link between beta-carotene and cancer prevention. In a cross-sectional, placebo-controlled, double-blind study we examined the effect of 10-12 y of beta-carotene supplementation (50 mg on alternate days) on NK cell activity in 59 (38 middle-aged men, 51-64 y; 21 elderly men, 65-86 y) Boston area participants in the Physicians' Health Study. No significant difference was seen in NK cell activity due to beta-carotene supplementation in the middle-aged group. The elderly men had significantly lower NK cell activity than the middle-aged men; however, there was no age-associated difference in NK cell activity in men supplemented with beta-carotene. beta-carotene-supplemented elderly men had significantly greater NK cell activity than elderly men receiving placebo. The reason for this is unknown; however, it was not due to an increase in the percentage of NK cells, nor to an increase in interleukin 2 (IL-2) receptor expression, nor to IL-2 production. beta-carotene may be acting directly on one or more of the lytic stages of NK cell cytotoxicity, or on NK cell activity-enhancing cytokines other than IL-2, such as IL-12. Our results show that long-term beta-carotene supplementation enhances NK cell activity in elderly men, which may be beneficial for viral and tumoral surveillance.