Chronic platelet activation – a major link between diet, lifestyle and cancer risk?

Tilman Kühn’s project suggests that over-activation of blood platelets may increase the risk of lung cancer, but not other cancers

  • Topic: Combination of cancers
  • Institution: German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ)
  • Country: Germany
  • Status: Completed
Researcher: Tilman Kühn


Platelets are blood cells with the function to prevent bleeding. They attach to each other and form a cluster to plug damaged vessels. High blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and a constantly high level of platelets. This overactivation can cause a blockage of vessels, which then leads to complications such as heart attack or strokes. The use of low-dose aspirin protects against such cardiovascular diseases, as aspirin inhibits platelet activation, thus preventing from blood clotting.

The use of low-dose aspirin protects against such cardiovascular diseases, as aspirin inhibits platelet activation, thus preventing blood clotting. It has recently been shown that aspirin also protects against cancer, especially colorectal cancer, probably because the cluster of platelets that also seems to facilitate tumour growth is stopped by aspirin. This observation strongly points to platelet overactivation as a major shared risk factor for both cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Dietary and lifestyle factors, particularly a plant-based diet rich in antioxidants, regular physical activity, not smoking, and weight maintenance, have been shown to reduce chronic platelet activation. Therefore, it seems plausible that anti-platelet effects related to these lifestyle factors may decrease cancer risk, similarly as low-dose aspirin does.

Aims and objectives

The study was set up to find out whether blood levels of platelet activation, which were measured years before cancer occurrence, are associated with the risks of the most common cancer types – breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer – over time.

We also investigated if dietary factors, physical activity, obesity, alcohol consumption, and smoking are related to platelet activation. The overall goal of the study was to answer the question whether platelet activation is an important link between diet, lifestyle and cancer development.

How the study was done

For this study, 25 000 healthy adults from the general population in Heidelberg, Germany, were recruited. At the start of the study, detailed information on diet, lifestyle, health status, medication use, and socio-economic background was obtained by questionnaires and interviews, and a blood sample was taken. All participants attended the study ten-year follow-up during which the occurrence of new cancer diagnoses was monitored. Blood levels of platelet activation were assessed in relation to diet and lifestyle as well as cancer risk throughout the course of the study.


Our study showed that blood concentrations of fibrinogen and P-selectin, two molecules that indicate platelet activation, were related to a higher risk of developing lung cancer. This may be due to higher levels of the two molecules being associated with smoking, and these two molecules could be used to identify people at an increased risk of lung cancer.

However, we did not find any clear evidence that links platelets with breast, prostate or colorectal cancer.

Grant publication