Fatty acid in palm oil linked to cancer metastasis
A new study, published in the journal Nature, has found a key fatty acid found in palm oil can promote cancer metastasis in mice. The research, which does not claim dietary palm oil has cancer-causing properties in humans, could lead to new therapies that block cancer spread in the future.
Palmitic acid is a major component of palm oil. This saturated fatty acid is also found in various quantities in dairy products and meat.
Studies have linked consumption of palmitic acid in palm oil to increased levels of bad cholesterol associated with cardiovascular disease, and a foundational 2017 study found certain fatty acids, palmitic acid in particular, can initiate metastasis in cancer cells. Now the same research team has followed up that earlier study with further work investigating exactly how the process plays out using a variety of animal experiments.
“In 2017, we published a study indicating that palmitic acid correlates with increased risk of metastasis, but we didn’t know the mechanism responsible for this,” explains Salvador Aznar-Benitah, lead scientist on the new research. “In this study, we detail the process and reveal the involvement of a metastatic capacity “memory” factor and we point to a therapeutic approach to reverse it. This is promising.”
Across several experiments with mice the new study found palmitic acid significantly increased the capacity for tumor cells to metastasize. This metastatic activity was detected when the animals were fed palmitic acid, but also when tumor cells exposed to palmitic acid were transplanted into animals fed a normal diet.
Further homing in on this unusual metastatic “memory” in the cancer cells exposed to palmitic oil, the researchers discovered notable epigenetic changes in the cells. These epigenetic changes triggered by exposure to palmitic oil offered the researchers clues to ways future therapeutics could inhibit this metastatic mechanism.
Aznar-Benitah says it is too early suggest dietary interventions could be effective in halting metastasis in cancer patients, but it is certainly plausible to think limiting palm oil could slow cancer metastasis, notes Aznar-Benitah. However, the big focus moving forward will be leveraging these findings to produce novel therapies that inhibit cancer spread.
“… we are focusing on new potential therapeutic targets that we could inhibit and that could have a real therapeutic benefit for the patient irrespective of their diet,” says Aznar-Benitah. "If things keep on going as planned, we could start the first clinical trial in a couple of years.”
Helen Rippon, from Worldwide Cancer Research, a major funder on this new study, says metastasis accounts for the vast majority of all cancer deaths, and these findings offer researchers new directions for promising novel cancer therapies.
“This discovery is a huge breakthrough in our understanding of how diet and cancer are linked and, perhaps more importantly, how we can use this knowledge to start new cures for cancer,” says Rippon. “Learning more about what makes cancer spread and – importantly – how to stop it is the way forward to reduce these numbers.”
The new study was published in the journal Nature.