Omega-3 DHA, a poison for cancer according to UCLouvain

If you like oily fish, like salmon, and eggs, this is some news you should love. Three researchers from UCLouvain have just shown that the omega-3 DHA contained in these foods literally imploded the most aggressive cancer cells. Their study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, thus shows the interest of this fatty acid in the fight against cancer. To reach this conclusion, it took several years of research.

Attacking the cancer heart

In 2016, one of these three scientists, Olivier Feron, proved that the cells located at the heart of tumors live in a much more acidic environment than in the periphery (ten times more than in healthy tissue). To survive there, they do not feed on glucose, as their congeners would, but on fatty acids. In 2020, it also proves that these same central cells are the most likely to cause metastases, the others being certainly cancerous but less dangerous.

His colleague Yvan Larondelle, an expert in nutrition, then reads this conclusion and asks himself a question: is there not a fatty acid which is not a fuel for its cells but a poison? The two men then team up with bioengineering doctoral student Emeline Dierge and quickly, they end up finding what they were looking for. One of the omega-3s, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), causes an unexpected reaction.

Normally, in the acidic zone of tumors, cancer cells store fatty acids in sort of small bags, which protects them from oxidation. But when DHA is present in a significant enough way, this is no longer possible. It is “ferruptose”. The cell gorges itself on DHA without realizing that this releases molecules that harm it and this is implosion, in the literal sense of the term. The heart of tumors dies.

After these observations made during in vitro experiments, the three UCLouvain researchers then demonstrated their results in practice, on cancerous mice fed a diet rich in DHA (in particular kibble enriched with fish oil) . In them, tumor development is significantly slowed, compared to other mice who have a conventional diet. This effect is even stronger when coupled with the administration of a lipid metabolism inhibitor, a drug used against obesity.

Eat better to fight cancer

Warning: this does not mean that omega-3 DHA is enough to kill cancer! Then there is still the whole periphery. But not only is the latter less aggressive but in addition, it is she who is the target of chemotherapy. The problem with this type of treatment is precisely that it often spares the acid part of tumors. This study therefore shows that these two aspects are important in the fight against cancer. First there is the chemo to attack the periphery of the tumor, then there is the omega-3 DHA to attack the acid center.

The problem today is that the population is generally deficient in omega-3 DHA. “For an adult, it is recommended to take at least 250 mg of DHA per day. However, studies show that our diet provides us on average only 50 to 100 mg per day of this fatty acid. What is well below the recommended minimum intake“, Say the authors of the study.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you just have to eat fish and eggs. To gorge yourself on salmon, for example, is to expose yourself to too high concentrations of pollutants present in the oceans. But making sure you’re getting enough omega-3 DHA is a good idea. The researchers also continue to investigate to see if other fatty acids could have the same effect, or even could be coupled with DHA to make the treatment even more effective.