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Tuesday, 3 August, 1999, 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK
Cancer study into artificial sweetener
Many soft drinks contain aspartame
Scientists are to study whether an artificial sweetener used in popular diet drinks is linked to an increased risk of malignant brain tumours.

Researchers from King's College, south London, will spend the next three years scrutinising the effect of the sweetener aspartame, marketed under the name NutraSweet.

Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than normal sugar. It is used in many low-calorie and no-calorie drinks, as an additive in foods and as a sweetener for hot drinks such as tea and coffee.

The research was welcomed by NutraSweet, which said there was "overwhelming scientific evidence" to prove the product was safe.

The study will look at whether people with certain genetic make-ups are susceptible to methanol, a compound in aspartame which some research has suggested can attack DNA and cause cells to mutate and cause cancer.

Neurochemist Dr Peter Nunn, who is heading the study, said: "Primary brain tumours are of considerable interest to everybody because the cause of them is not known.

"Some studies have shown there to be a link between aspartame and primary brain tumours, and some studies have shown there to be no link.

"This study does not set out to rubbish aspartame. It is a serious study into whether people with certain genes are more susceptible to these compounds than others."

The study will look at whether cells of certain tumours react to chemicals.

'Claims dismissed as scare-mongering'

A statement from NutraSweet AG said: "There is already an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence which confirms the safety of aspartame, but scare-mongerers have continued to claim that aspartame is linked to brain tumours.

"We have no doubt whatsoever that provided the study is well-designed and well-conducted, it will show that there is no such link.

"The study will therefore provide a further opportunity to put these groundless rumours to rest."

The statement went on: "It is physiologically impossible for aspartame to cause brain tumours because it never enters the bloodstream and thus cannot travel to essential organs, including the brain."

Aspartame was invented in 1965 but has only taken hold in Britain in the last decade.

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh: "People should not worry"
See also:

16 Oct 98 | Health
Sweeteners, sweeteners everywhere
07 Jun 99 | Medical notes
Brain tumours
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