An ingredient in extra-virgin olive oil kills a variety of cancer cells in a matter of minutes, without damaging healthy ones. The ingredient is called oleocanthal, and it breaks down the “recycling center” of the cancerous cell, destroying it.

Image via Wells Oriented.

Olive oil has a myriad of health benefits – although a conclusive cause-effect study hasn’t been conducted yet, olive oil consumption is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, it can help fight the effects of aging, and replacing butter, sunflower or palm oil with olive oil is indicated when dealing with obesity and diabetes.

Oleocanthal is the compound responsible for the burning sensation that occurs in the back of the throat when consuming extra-virgin olive oil. Oleocanthal has been found to be have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and it shows potential in the treatment of inflammatory degenerative joint diseases. Researchers have known for a while that oleocanthal killed some cancer cells, but weren’t really sure how, and they didn’t know if it also harmed healthy cells in the process. Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and David Foster and Onica LeGendre of Hunter College wanted to figure this out.

“We needed to determine if oleocanthal was targeting that protein and causing the cells to die,” says Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers and coauthor of a new study published in Molecular and Cellular Oncology.

After applying oleocanthal to cancer cells, they report that cancer cells were being killed off in 30-60 minutes – way faster and more efficient than researchers imagined. The compound punctured the cancerous cells’ vesicles – the cells “recycling centers”.

“Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose [for the cancer cells],” Breslin says.

What’s interesting is that this process doesn’t destroy healthy cells – it puts them to sleep for a while, but they quickly recover with no side effects.

However, it has to be said that this was only proven to work in lab cultures. Now, the next step for scientists is to test how oleocanthal works in living animals.

“We also need to understand why it is that cancerous cells are more sensitive to oleocanthal than non-cancerous cells.”

If this also works out as expected, then the team can start trying it on humans. It’s a long and difficult process which can drag out for years, but there are serious reasons to be optimistic.

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

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