Palm oil used in chocolate spreads, cooking oil may fuel cancer spread

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A worker trims leaves on a newly created dwarf palm oil tree at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) research station in Bukit Lawiang in Malaysia
(MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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December 25 2021 12:00 am

EDINBURGH, Scotland (StudyFinds.org) — Palm oil is a versatile ingredient that the world uses in everything from food manufacturing to beauty products. However, a new study finds that this substance — which is also a common ingredient in chocolate spreads — may also fuel the spread of cancer throughout the body.

A team from Worldwide Cancer Research says the vegetable fat alters the DNA of tumors, making them more aggressive. Luckily, they add there’s now a drug that can reverse the process, offering hope of destroying different types of the disease.

“If things keep on going as planned, we could start the first clinical trial in a couple of years,” says senior author Professor Salvador Aznar-Benitah from the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology in a media release.

“I am very excited about this and we are investing a lot of effort to generate the best possible therapy that cancer patients will hopefully be able to benefit from in the nearby future.”

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil which comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. It gives chocolate spreads like Nutella its smooth texture and long shelf life. A host of other products also make use of this natural substance, including breads and margarine.

Unfortunately, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the World Health Organization have declared it to be more carcinogenic than any other oil. The new study sheds fresh light on its link to cancer, opening the door to therapies that prevent cancer migrating, or metastasizing, to other organs.

Experiments on mice found palmitic acid, the main saturated fatty acid in palm oil, promotes mouth cancers and deadly skin melanomas. Other fatty acids such as omega-9 and omega-6, found in olive oil and flaxseeds, did not show the same effect.

Despite the findings, the team finds none of these substances, including palmitic acid, increases the risk of developing cancer in the first place.

“I think it is too early to determine which type of diet could be consumed by patients with metastatic cancer that would slow down the metastatic process,” Prof. Aznar-Benitah notes. “That said, based on our results one would think that a diet poor in palmitic acid could be effective in slowing down the metastatic process, but much more work is needed to determine this.

“We are not concentrating on this direction of research; instead, 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,” the researcher continues.

Palm oil impacts users on a genetic level

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat in our body and the food we eat. They also appear to nourish tumors, but scientists say it’s been unclear how. When researchers supplemented the diets of lab rodents with palmitic acid, cancer metastasis increased. The team also discovered long-term effects on the animals’ genome.

Cancer cells exposed to palmitic acid for a short period spread quickly, even after study authors removed it from the rodents’ diets. The study, published in the journal Nature, reveals this genetic “memory” is a result of epigenetic changes to how the genes function.

Those changes due to palmitic acid alter the function of metastatic cancer cells, allowing them to form a neural network around the tumor and spread more easily. By understanding this communication, the team uncovered a way to block it.

Developing a defense against cancer metastasizing

ONA Therapeutics, a start-up co-founded by Prof. Aznar-Benitah, is developing antibodies to stop metastasis in a range of cancers. The company secured funding from private investors and tests on patients with different types of the disease should begin by 2023.

“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 Dr. Helen Rippon, chief executive at Worldwide Cancer Research.

“Metastasis is estimated to be responsible for 90% of all cancer deaths – that’s around nine million deaths per year globally. Learning more about what makes cancer spread and – importantly – how to stop it is the way forward to reduce these numbers.”

“Discovery research like this is incredibly exciting because it marks the beginning of a journey that will ultimately lead to more lives saved and more time spent with loved ones,” researchers conclude. “We are all very excited to see the results from this clinical trial and the future impact these findings might have on people with metastatic cancer.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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