The so-called “good fatty acids” are essential for human health and in high demand by those trying to eat healthy. Among the omega-3 fatty acids, DHA or docosahexaenoic acid is essential for brain function, vision and the regulation of inflammatory phenomena.
In addition to these virtues, DHA is also associated with a reduction in the incidence of cancer. Its functioning is the subject of a major discovery by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Louvain (UCLouvain), which has just elucidated the biochemical mechanism that allows DHA and other related fatty acids to slow down the development of tumors. This is a major breakthrough that has just been published in the journal Cell metabolism.
Key to discovery: interdisciplinarity
In 2016, Olivier Feron’s UCLouvain team, specialized in oncology, discovered that cells in an acidic microenvironment (acidosis) within tumors replace glucose with lipids as a source of energy to multiply. In collaboration with Cyril Corbet from UCLouvain, Prof. Feron demonstrated in 2020 that these same cells are the most aggressive and acquire the ability to leave the original tumor to generate metastases. For his part, Yvan Larondelle, professor at the Faculty of Bioengineering at UCLouvain, whose team is developing improved dietary lipid sources, suggested to Professor Feron that they combine their skills in a research project, led by the doctoral student Emeline Dierge, to assess the behavior of tumor cells in the presence of different fatty acids.
Thanks to the support of the Louvain Foundation, the Belgian Foundation against cancer and the Télévie telethon, the team quickly identified that these acidotic tumor cells responded in a diametrically opposite way depending on the fatty acid they absorbed. Within weeks, the results were both impressive and surprising. “We quickly found that some fatty acids stimulated tumor cells while others killed them,” the researchers explained. DHA literally poisons them.
The poison acts on tumor cells through a phenomenon called ferroptosis, a type of cell death linked to the peroxidation of certain fatty acids. The greater the quantity of unsaturated fatty acids in the cell, the greater the risk of their oxidation. Normally, in the acid compartment of tumors, cells store these fatty acids in lipid droplets, a kind of bundle in which fatty acids are protected from oxidation. But in the presence of a large amount of DHA, the tumor cell is overwhelmed and cannot store DHA, which oxidizes and leads to cell death. By using an inhibitor of lipid metabolism that prevents the formation of lipid droplets, the researchers were able to observe that this phenomenon is further amplified, which confirms the mechanism identified and opens the door to the possibilities of combined treatments.
For their study, UCLouvain researchers used a 3D tumor cell culture system called spheroids. In the presence of DHA, the spheroids first develop and then implode. The team also administered a DHA-enriched diet to mice with tumors. Result: tumor development was significantly slowed compared to that of mice following a conventional diet.
This UCLouvain study shows the interest of DHA in the fight against cancer. “For an adult, specify the UCLouvain researchers, it is recommended to consume at least 250 mg of DHA per day. But studies show that our diet only provides an average of 50 to 100 mg per day. This is well below the recommended minimum intake. . “
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