Compounds from olive oil may lead to new breast cancer drugs

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists from Spain have discovered that chemicals in olive oil can block the activity of a key breast cancer gene, in laboratory tests.

By separating extra-virgin olive oil - which, crucially, is made without using heat or chemical treatments - into fractions, researchers led by Javier Menendez from the Catalan Institute of Oncology and Antonio Segura-Carretero from the University of Granada were able to assess the effectiveness of different components of the oil against the ability of breast cancer cells to grow in the lab.

They found the fractions which contained chemicals called lignans and secoiridoids - both forms of polypheol - blocked the normal function of a gene called HER2 , which is involved in the growth of some breast cancers.

Several lines of evidence have suggested that polyphenols from plants might have anticancer properties, but this is the first time extracts of olive oil have been shown to act on a specific cell pathway.

"Our findings reveal for the first time that all the major complex phenols present in extra-virgin olive oil drastically suppress overexpression of the cancer gene HER2 in human breast cancer cells," confirmed Mr Menendez.

However, the study's authors also pointed out that consuming normal levels of extra-virgin olive oil is unlikely to have an impact on HER2-related breast cancer risk.

Dr Joanna Owens, Cancer Research UK senior cancer information officer, said: "We already know that a Mediterranean-style diet can help to protect against cancer, which includes cutting down on saturated fats often found in chocolate, crisps and cakes in favour of the monounsaturated fats found in foods like olive oil.

"In this study the researchers separated out the natural plant chemicals in olive oil and looked at their effects on different types of breast cancer cells in the lab - but the concentrations they've used are much higher than you could ever obtain from eating olive oil.

"This research is at a very early stage but investigating the potential of plant chemicals is an exciting area of research that could pave the way for the development of cancer drugs in the future."

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