A key ingredient in palm oil, which is found in hundreds of foods – including chocolate, bread and ice cream, as well as in many toiletries and lubricants – stimulates a protein called CD36 in humans.
Scientists now believe that this fatty acid receptor plays a vital role in tumours detaching and spreading around the body in the process known as metastasizing.
A team from the Institute for Research in Barcelona found the protein in the membranes of tumour cells taken from patients with advanced ovarian, bladder, lung, breast, mouth and skin cancers. Mice were subsequently injected with advanced human mouth cancer and fed either a low-fat or a high-fat diet.
All the animals whose cancer was exposed to CD36 went on to develop metastasis. However, only half of those that were not exposed ended up having their tumours spread, according to the study, which was published in the journal Nature. Even in mice whose cancer had already spread, the progress of the disease was halted by a fifth.
Further research showed that blocking the protein with antibodies completely prevented metastasis in mice.
The scientists are now working on developing antibody-based therapies that target CD36 that work specifically on humans.
Lead researcher Professor Salvador Benitah said: “In mice inoculated with human tumour cells, there appears to be a direct link between fat intake and an increase in metastatic potential through CD36. More studies are needed to unravel this intriguing relationship, above all because industrialized countries are registering an alarming increase in the consumption of saturated fats and sugar.”
“Fat is necessary for the function of the body, but uncontrolled intake can have an effect on health, as already shown for some tumours such as colon cancer, and in metastasis, as we demonstrate here,” he added.
Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, and it is in about half of all packaged goods sold in supermarkets. Products containing palm oil include: chocolate, cookies, ice cream, bread, margarine, instant noodles, pizza dough, soap, shampoo, lipstick, detergents and other cleaning products, and biodiesel, among others.