A NEWLY found ink between fatty diet and tumour spread could lead to new treatments for the deadliest forms of cancer, a study part-funded in Scotland has found.

The research which was described as "ground-breaking" by the St Andrews-based Worldwide Cancer Research charity, has discovered that cancer spread is increased by a high fat diet.

Researchers led by Professor Salvador Benitah, from the Institute for Research in Barcelona, Spain, have identified a fat-sensitive cancer protein called CD36 that appeared to play a vital role in tumours upping anchor and travelling around the body.


Advanced cancers usually prove fatal once they spread, or metastasise, to vital organs such as the liver and brain.

Tests showed CD36 is stimulated by dietary fats including palmatic acid, the key ingredient in palm oil which is widely used in snack foods.

Palm oil is found in hundreds of food products, including chocolate, biscuits, bread, sweets, ice cream, crackers, pastries, cakes, granola bars and margarine. It is also added to soaps, cosmetics and toothpaste.

Dr Lara Bennett, science communications manager at Worldwide Cancer Research, which contributed over £200,000 to the research said it is the first time she had described anything that the charity was involved with as ground-breaking.

She said: "This is particularly amazing and unexpected. The fact they have identified cells that are thought to be involved in spread is massive.

"We have been supporting Professor Benitah's work for a number of years and it is fantastic to now see these truly game-changing results.

"If the team are able to go on to develop this antibody into a treatment for humans, it could save thousands of lives every year."

Professor Benitah said: "Although we have not yet tested this in all tumour types, we can state that CD36 is a general marker of metastatic cells, the first I know of that is generally specific to metastasis.

"We expect this study to have a big impact on the scientific community. Things like this don’t happen every day."

Prof Benitah, whose research is published in Nature,  believes the early work could lead to new treatments that prevent cancer spreading. His team is now developing antibody-based therapies that target CD36.

The protein helps cancer cells take up fatty acids. To investigate the link, the scientists exposed human mouth cancer cells to palmitic acid for two days before injecting them into mice fed a standard diet.

All the mice whose cancers had the CD36 protein developed metastasis. But without palmitic acid, only half the CD36-positive cancers spread.

Further research showed that blocking the protein with antibodies completely prevented metastasis in mice with human mouth cancer.

Among mice whose cancers had already spread, disease progress was halted in a fifth. In others, cancer spread was greatly reduced and tumours shrank.

Evidence beyond mouth cancer came from the discovery of CD36 in a wide range of metastatic tumours taken from patients.

When the protein was added to non-spreading cancer lines in the laboratory, the cells became metastatic.

Prof 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 industrialised 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."