Pizza, chocolate, cookies — just some of the Western diet staples that are chock-full of palm oil. Regardless of the devastating environmental impact, it can seem hard to avoid.
However, according to new research from the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), palm oil could be doing more harm than we realized, potentially playing a role in encouraging cancer to spread throughout the body. In a study conducted on mice, the researchers discovered that a fatty acid within palm oil could promote the metastasis of skin and mouth cancer cells. The effect lasted even when the tumor cells were exposed to palm oil for a short time before being removed.
Their results were published in Nature.
“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. 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,” says Dr. Aznar-Benitah, of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, in a statement.
As Professor Aznar-Benitah states, previous research has shown palmitic (along with other fatty acids) could promote metastasis in cancer. To discover exactly how, the researchers took samples of oral tumor cells and melanomas (skin cancer) and exposed them to a diet rich in palmitic oil. These cells were then transplanted into mice to see whether the diet would alter their behavior and induce them to metastasize more readily.
They found that the diet induced changes in the cells made them more aggressive, increasing their propensity to metastasize in the mice. Alarmingly, even cells exposed to the diet for just a short time showed that same aggression, suggesting the cells developed a "memory" profile as a result of the palmitic oil.
The tumor cells had undergone epigenetic changes (where specific genes are switched "on" or "off") that stimulated Shwann cells (the cells that wrap around neurons, much like the plastic casing around electrical wires). This generated a neural network around the tumor that allowed it to grow and spread.
With 90 percent of all cancer deaths occurring as a direct result of the cancer spreading throughout the body, inhibiting metastasis could be a game-changer in cancer treatment. In the study, the researchers suggest a therapeutic target to combat palm-oil-induced metastasis by blocking the action of Schwann cells, but this will need further testing to verify.
The evidence against palm oil appears damning, but more research needs to be done before the results are clinically relevant. Professor Aznar-Benitah now hopes to further illuminate the role of palm oil and explore ways to counter the action by blocking Schwann cells.
“There is something very special about palmitic acid that makes it an extremely potent promoter of metastasis,” said Professor Salvador Aznar-Benitah, reports The Guardian. “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.”