Oleocanthal: the Olive Oil Ingredient that Kills Cancer Cells

An ingredient in extra-virgin olive oil has been found to kill a variety of cancer cells in humans, without harming healthy cells.

The ingredient is oleocanthal.

A Rutgers University nutritional scientist along with two cancer biologists from New York City’s Hunter College discovered that the compound ruptures a part of the cancerous cell, releasing enzymes that result in cell death.

There were more than 14 million new cases of cancer in 2012 and more than 8 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization’s World Cancer Report 2014.

Oleocanthal kills cancerous cells in the laboratory by rupturing vesicles that store the cell’s waste.

Targeting Apoptosis

Scientists already were aware that oleocanthal killed some cancer cells. No one really understood, however, the method by which this occurred.

Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, believed that oleocanthal might be targeting a key protein in cancer cells that triggers a programmed cell death, known as apoptosis.

Breslin worked with David Foster and Onica LeGendre of Hunter College to test his hypothesis after meeting Foster at a seminar.

Said Breslin:

We needed to determine if oleocanthal was targeting that protein and causing the cells to die.

Cancer Killed in 30 Minutes

After applying oleocanthal to the cancer cells, the researchers found that the cancer cells were dying very quickly; within 30 minutes to an hour. Programmed cell death takes between 16 and 24 hours, so the scientists knew that something else had to be causing the cancer cells to break down and die.

The researchers discovered that the cancer cells were being killed by their own enzymes. The oleocanthal was puncturing the vesicles inside the cancer cells that store the cell’s waste, the cell’s “dumpster,” or “recycling center.”

The vesicles, also known as lysosomes, are larger in cancer cells than in healthy cells. And they contain a lot of waste.

In fact, Breslin said, concerning lysosomes:

Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose.

On top of that, the compound doesn’t harm healthy cells. It only halts their life cycles temporarily, or “put them to sleep,” Breslin says. After a day, the healthy cells resumed their cycles.

What is the next logical next step? Acccording to says senior author David Foster, it is to go beyond laboratory conditions and demonstrate that oleocanthal can kill cancer cells and shrink tumors in living animals.

It is also important to understand why cancerous cells are more sensitive to oleocanthal than non-cancerous cells.

Original Study:

Oleocanthal rapidly and selectively induces cancer cell death via lysosomal membrane permeabilization (LMP)
O LeGendre , P A S Breslin , D A Foster
Molecular & Cellular Oncology DOI: 10.1080/23723556.2015.1006077

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture