New research links major component of palm oil to cancer spread
Yesterday, research we co-funded with Professor Benitah at the IRB in Barcelona, Spain hit the headlines with some claiming that cancer patients should avoid a high-fat diet to help stop cancer spread, so is this true? The researchers are now using this knowledge to develop a new treatment that could save thousands of lives. Although it is not being tested in patients quite yet, here is an explanation of what the research could mean for the future.
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What’s the new research all about?
The research team identified the cells responsible for metastasis (cancer spread) and suggests a major component of many types of fat, including palm oil, may help speed up the process. What exactly did the researchers find, and what does this mean for us when palm oil is now in everything from toothpaste to peanut butter?
Cancer is most deadly when it has begun to spread, as successful treatment is much more difficult. Scientists around the globe are therefore trying to understand how the process occurs and then develop new ways to stop it.
The team in Spain found a protein called CD36 was present on metastatic cancer cells from patients with a range of different tumours including oral tumours, melanoma skin cancer, ovarian, bladder, lung and breast cancer. To confirm the essential role of CD36 in cancer spread, they added it to non-metastatic cancer cells which then caused the cells to become metastatic.
“We expect this study to have a big impact on the scientific community and to further advances in metastasis (cancer spread) research and we hope to be able to validate the potential of CD36 as an anti-metastasis treatment. Things like this don’t happen every day” says Professor Benitah.
They then studied the behaviour of human oral tumour samples injected into mice, where they grow and spread to distant sites (metastasis) as they do in the patients.
Although all the cells were able to grow and develop tumours, only the tumours produced by CD36 cells went on to spread around the body.
CD36 sits in the cell membrane where its job is to move fatty acids from outside of the cell into the middle. The researchers, therefore, wondered how a high-fat diet would impact on cancer spread, given the key role of CD36.
Interestingly, a high-fat diet or direct stimulation of these cells with a saturated fatty acid called palmitic acid (the main component of palm oil) increased their ability to spread.
What does this mean for me?
“In mice inoculated with human tumour cells, there appears to be a direct link between fat intake and an increase in metastatic potential through CD36. More studies are needed to unravel this intriguing relationship, above all because industrialised countries are registering an alarming increase in the consumption of saturated fats and sugar,” warns Professor Benitah. “Fat is necessary for the function of the body, but uncontrolled intake can have an effect on health, as already shown for some tumours such as colon cancer, and in metastasis, as we demonstrate here.”
This research was carried out in mice- and findings still need to be confirmed in humans regarding the impact of diet on cancer spread. But this work can still be taken as another warning shot against excessive consumption of fatty foods.
The extent to which a fatty diet might or might not directly affect cancer risk is still not really known. Some studies suggest for some groups of people, likely due to a change in their hormones.
However, too much fat affects your health in other ways. Excess calorie consumption can lead to being overweight or obese, which is itself linked with increased risk of a number of cancers. And too much saturated fatty acid (of which palmitic acid is one) can raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of other serious conditions including heart disease and stroke.
High cholesterol has also been linked to cancer. In fact, former Worldwide Cancer Research grant holder Dr Michelle Hill and her team at the University of Queensland in Australia found that a high-cholesterol diet might increase the spread of prostate cancer in mice.
But in the interest of balance, it’s also worth pointing out that no fats are entirely ‘bad’- and we need a certain amount of fat in our diet to stay healthy.
How does this research link to palm oil?
Palmitic acid is a major component of animal and some vegetable fats and is found at particularly high levels in palm oil. Palm oil is a light, cheap, and easy to use type of vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit of the African oil palm tree. Few of us are aware of just how much palm oil we eat and come into contact with every day. It’s used in many different household products- from peanut butter to toothpaste. It keeps our oven chips crispy and stops shampoos stripping our hair. You might not even be aware of just how much palm oil you’re eating already.
Palm oil has been around for a long time, but it’s never before been used with such gusto. And it’s set to become even more ubiquitous. Compared to 2000 levels, Greenpeace predicts palm oil demand will triple by 2050. This consumer explosion has triggered valid ethical and ecological discussions and efforts to improve sustainable palm oil use.
It’s also vitally important that researchers understand any health implications for us- the humans who unwittingly eat, wash, and bathe in it on a daily basis.
So should we stop eating palm oil?
As with any part of our diet, moderation is always a good idea. Research is still limited on the potential health pros and cons of palmitic acid and palm oil consumption, and it’s certainly too early to start chucking out all your meat, dairy, and everything else which contains palmitic acid. And no food is ever all ‘good’ or all ‘bad’. Natural foods which contain palmitic acid can contain a whole host of other compounds which the body needs to stay healthy.
But that said, Dr Aznar Benitah’s research does help add another piece to the puzzle explaining why excessive consumption of processed foods and foods containing high levels of saturated fatty acids might not be that great an idea. We await the next piece of the puzzle with interest.
What next for this research?
Professor Benitah’s next step is to try to develop a drug or antibody that can switch off the CD36 protein. He already has evidence that by doing this in mice, he can dramatically reduce cancer spread by 80-90% in some cells and abolish it in others. If he could develop something that could be used in humans to stop cancer spread it could potentially save thousands of lives every year.
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