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How do omega-3 fatty acids attack tumors? Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images
  • An emerging area of cancer treatment research looks at dietary interventions.
  • In previous studies in mice, omega-3 fatty acids showed promise as an antitumor treatment. However, validating these findings required more research.
  • The present study contributes to this, identifying a mechanism for how omega-3 fatty acids might attack tumors.

In a new study, researchers have suggested a mechanism that could account for the link between omega-3 fatty acids and the inhibition of tumors in mice.

The research, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, lays the groundwork for possible future cancer treatments.

The senior author of the study was Prof. Olivier Feron, research director at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences and the Faculty of Medicine, at the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium.

As the Office of Dietary Supplements explains, omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in maintaining health. They contribute to the functioning of various parts of the body.

Researchers have also linked omega-3 fatty acids to anticancer effects.

Dietary interventions against cancer are a growing area of research. Much has focused on how to restrict certain nutrients that cancer cells depend on, with the aim of inhibiting the growth of tumors.

For example, scientists have explored the effectiveness of calorie restriction, and ketogenic diets in particular, on the inhibition of tumors in mice.

However, as Dr. Feron and his co-authors point out:

“Applications of these approaches in cancer patients, including via the ketogenic diet that makes fat-generating ketone bodies to spare healthy organs, face obvious issues, including weight loss, associated fatigue, and weakness, together with practical difficulties in implementing these diets in an everyday cancer patient’s life.”

Instead of restricting dietary intake, researchers looking at omega-3 fatty acids as an anticancer intervention have focused on supplementation. For example, researchers have associated higher omega-3 intake with lower colorectal cancer death rates.

The researchers behind the present study explored what potential biological mechanisms may account for the link between omega-3 fatty acids and tumor inhibition.

The team has previously shown that an acidic microenvironment in tumors encourages cells to use lipids as an energy source rather than glucose, which enables the tumor cells to multiply and spread throughout the body.

Building on this research, the group then explored how fatty acids affect tumor cells.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that different fatty acids had significantly different effects on tumor cells. According to the study authors, “We soon found that certain fatty acids stimulated the tumor cells while others killed them.”

The omega-3 fatty acids were doing this through a process called ferroptosis. The fatty acids were overwhelming the tumor cells, which were unable to stop them from oxidizing. This killed the tumor cells.

The researchers confirmed the finding by using a lipid metabolism inhibitor on the tumor cells. This stops the cells from protecting against lipid oxidation by forming lipid droplets.

The team consequently observed an increase in cell death when the cancer cells were exposed to significant amounts of omega-3.

Finally, the researchers fed mice a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids before injecting them with cancer cells. They observed a significant tumor growth delay in the mice with the omega-3-rich diet, compared with the control group.

Prof. Feron and his colleagues suggest that future research should identify whether their findings can be replicated in humans, and what the ideal dosage of omega-3 fatty acids would be to achieve this.

Medical News Today spoke with Dr. William G. Cance, the chief medical and scientific officer at the American Cancer Society, who was not involved in the study. Speaking about the results, he said:

“This research identifies a specific vulnerability of cancer cells based on the different way they metabolize their lipids (fats). In addition, it provides a biological mechanism for the antitumor effects of dietary long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. It delivers a long-needed scientific rationale for a specific dietary intervention and highlights another approach in the promising area of targeting tumor metabolism as a potential cancer therapeutic.”

Although scientists need to conduct more work, Dr. Cance is hopeful that in the future, “A relatively simple dietary intervention may have a therapeutic effect in some cancers.”

He continued, “The finding that there are tumor-specific vulnerabilities that can be exploited with diet opens up different strategies to treat the tumor that do not involve classic drug-based therapies.”