Avocatin B - a compound in avocados - targets and destroys leukemia stem cells, according to the researchers.
Prof. Paul Spagnuolo, of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Cancer Research.
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer that begins in the bone marrow, where blood stem cells (immature cells) turn into mature blood cells. In AML, the blood stem cells in the bone marrow become abnormal myeloblasts - a form of white blood cell - red blood cells or platelets.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 people in the US will be diagnosed with AML this year, and more than 10,000 people will die from the cancer.
Most common among people aged 65 and older, AML has a poor survival rate, with around 90% of seniors with the cancer dying within 5 years of diagnosis.
But according to Prof. Spagnuolo and colleagues, there is a compound in avocados - called avocatin B - that holds promise for a new treatment for AML.
Avocatin B targets and destroys leukemia stem cells
Using a high-throughput cell-based screen to assess the effects of avocatin B on human leukemia stem cells, the researchers found the compound selectively targets and destroys them while leaving healthy blood cells unscathed.
"Not only does avocatin B eliminate the source of AML, but its targeted, selective effects make it less toxic to the body, too," explains Prof. Spagnuolo.
While the researchers say it is many years before avocatin B can be used in clinical settings to treat AML, they have teamed up with Canada's Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) to file a patent for the compound for this use.
"It's an exciting time for our lab," says Prof. Spagnuolo. "With the help of CCRM we are now pursuing commercial partnership that would take avocatin B into clinical trials."
Avocatin B falls into a category of compounds known as nutraceuticals, defined as food-derived products that have potential clinical benefits.
Prof. Spagnuolo and colleagues say they are one of very few research teams globally who are applying the vigorous drug-investigation processes incorporated within the pharmaceutical industry to nutraceuticals.
While most researchers investigate food or plant extracts for their potential clinical use, Prof. Spagnuolo says using nutraceuticals offers a more clear-cut insight.
"Extracts are less refined," he says. "The contents of an extract can vary from plant to plant and year to year, depending on lots of factors - on the soil, the location, the amount of sunlight, the rain."
"Evaluating a nutraceutical as a potential clinical drug requires in-depth evaluation at the molecular level," he adds. "This approach provides a clearer understanding of how the nutraceutical works, and it means we can reproduce the effects more accurately and consistently. This is critical to safely translating our lab work into a reliable drug that could be used in oncology clinics."
This is not the first study to hail avocados for their potential health benefits. In January, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming that eating one avocado daily as a part of a moderate-fat diet could reduce levels of "bad" cholesterol among people who are overweight or obese.
Our Knowledge Center article on the health benefits of avocado reveals some of the other health benefits the fruit may have.