Numerous dietary studies have found that vegetables and fruits protect against upper aerodigestive tract cancer. To evaluate the role of beta-carotene and other specific carotenoids, a nested case-control study using prediagnostic serum was conducted among 6832 American men of Japanese ancestry examined from 1971 to 1975. During a surveillance period of 20 years, the study identified 28 esophageal, 23 laryngeal, and 16 oral-pharyngeal cancer cases in this cohort. The 69 cases were matched to 138 controls. A liquid chromatography technique, designed to optimize recovery and separation of the individual carotenoids, was used to measure serum levels of lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, retinol, retinyl palmitate, and alpha-, delta-, and gamma-tocopherol. With adjustment for cigarette smoking and alcohol intake, we found that alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, total carotenoids and gamma-tocopherol levels were significantly lower in the 69 upper aerodigestive tract cancer patients than in their controls. Trends in risk by tertile of serum level were significant for these five micronutrients. These significant trends persisted in cases diagnosed 10 or more years after phlebotomy for the three individual carotenoids and total carotenoid measurements. The odds ratios for the highest tertile were 0.19 (95% confidence interval, 0.05-0.75) for alpha-carotene, 0.10 (0.02-0.46) for beta-carotene, 0.25 (0.06-1.04) for beta-cryptoxanthin, and 0.22 (0.05-0.88) for total carotenoids. When the cases were separated into esophageal, laryngeal, and oral-pharyngeal cancer, both alpha-carotene and beta-carotene were consistently and strongly associated with reduced risk at each site. The findings suggest that alpha-carotene and other carotenoids, as well as beta-carotene, may be involved in the etiology of upper aerodigestive tract cancer.

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