By the time you finish watching your favorite TV drama, somewhere in a faraway lab the cancer cells will already be dead. Oleocanthal, the primary phenolic compound found in extra-virgin olive oil, has been shown to eradicate cancer cells in less than an hour, giving scientists hope that targeted drug options in the future may be possible.
A team of researchers from Rutgers University and Hunter College published their recent study in the journal Molecular & Cellular Oncology. The findings add even more firepower to the argument in favor of olive oil, which has been shown in prior studies to shield our bodies against air pollution, improve our immune systems, protect aging bones, and perhaps even prevent the slide into Alzheimer’s disease.
Under normal conditions, unnecessary cells experience a process called apoptosis, a kind of cell suicide, which takes between 16 and 24 hours. In their tests, Onica LeGendre and David Foster of Hunter College, and Paul Breslin of Rutgers, found the cells of all forms of cancer they were studying got wiped out within 30 minutes to an hour. Apoptosis couldn’t have been the only process at work, they thought.
“We needed to determine if oleocanthal was targeting that protein and causing the cells to die,” said Breslin, a professor of nutritional sciences, in a university release.
What they found was that oleocanthal was destroying the cancer cells’ waste centers, known as lysosomes, which are larger than healthy cells and also more fragile. “Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose,” Breslin said. They provide a necessary stabilizing function for the cell. After oleocanthal did its damage, critical functions began to suffer and the cell soon died. Plus, healthy cells stayed intact. After oleocanthal “put them to sleep” for a day, they rebounded as if nothing had happened.
The study isn’t without its limits. Cell cultures provide a reliable model for understanding how an external substance affects a new biological environment, but cells aren’t as complex as rats, which aren’t as complex as humans. It will still be years before oleocanthal makes its way into a clinical setting, by which time other technologies may have already crowded it out.
As a proof of concept, however, the findings suggest a robust set of possibilities for the compound. Oleocanthal is just one of the many phenols — a type of antioxidant — that appears in extra-virgin olive oil. It’s no accident the stuff appears in so many of the world’s healthiest diets. In addition to the heart-healthy antioxidants, olive oil provides a rich source of healthy fats that may preserve brain health and improve memory.
"We think oleocanthal could explain reduced [cancer] incidence in Mediterranean diets where consumption is high," Foster told Medical Daily in an email. "And it is also possible that purified (higher-dose) could possibly be used therapeutically."
Ultimately, the co-authors want to learn more about why oleocanthal targets and shrinks cancer cells specifically. “We also need to understand why it is that cancerous cells are more sensitive to oleocanthal than non-cancerous cells,” Foster said in the release. Even if consuming more olive oil won’t necessarily protect you from cancer today, budding research may help bring some of the ingredient into the hospital in the future.
Source: LeGendre O, Breslin P, Foster D. Oleocanthal rapidly and selectively induces cancer cell death via lysosomal membrane permeabilization (LMP). Molecular & Cellular Oncology. 2015.