A new study from the University of Missouri found a popular supplement used for a variety of beneficial health results may actually be responsible for heightening the risk of some cancers.

The supplement, a form of vitamin B3 called nicotinamide riboside (NR), has been the subject of commercial studies in which it was found to have benefits to cardiovascular, metabolic and neurological health.

Known for its suggested benefits to metabolism, brain health, and cardiovascular systems, NR is sometimes referred to as an “anti-aging” vitamin. A 2020 study by researchers from Switzerland, Belgrade and the UK cited evidence of NR’s anti-inflammatory effects that implied “additional mechanisms” to potentially “modulate the aging process and thereby exhibit life-prolonging effects.”

“While the exact mechanisms through which NR exerts these effects remain unclear, the apparent health benefits described indicate positive effects of NR on longevity,” the study’s authors stated.

But researchers from Mizzou found that the supplement could actually increase the risk of serious disease, including the development of breast cancer and brain metastasis.

Researchers found that high levels of NR could not only increase someone’s risk of developing “triple-negative breast cancer,” but could cause the cancer to spread to the brain. At that point, there are no viable treatment options and the cancer becomes terminal.

Elena Goun, an associate professor of chemistry at Mizzou, was interested in researching the causes of cancer metastasis after her father died from colon cancer that spread to other parts of his body.

Goun wanted to investigate if NR could actually feed cancer cells, as the supplement is known for helping increase levels of cellular energy which fuels cancer cells.

“Some people take them [vitamins and supplements] because they automatically assume that vitamins and supplements only have positive health benefits, but very little is known about how they actually work,” Goun said in a news release. “Because of this lack of knowledge, we were inspired to study the basic questions surrounding how vitamins and supplements work in the body.”

Goun added that NR is part of many studies, but still much about it remains unknown, likening it to a “black box.”

“Our work is especially important given the wide commercial availability and a large number of ongoing human clinical trials where NR is used to mitigate the side effects of cancer therapy in patients,” Goun said.

Goud and her fellow researchers used “ultrasensitive bioluminescent imaging” to detect NR in real time without any invasive instruments. By using the imaging technique, they were able to find that the brighter the light appears, the more NR was present in a patient.

The findings of the study, Goun said, emphasize the need for careful research of supplements like NR before they are recommended for commercial use, especially when those who take the vitamin have different types of health conditions. She added that it’s important that medical care be personalized for each person.

Goun hopes that their findings will help in the battle against cancer and “the development of certain inhibitors to help make cancer therapies like chemotherapy more effective.”

To read more about the University of Missouri study and the other researchers involved in the project, click here.