An Omega-3 That’s Poison for Cancer Tumors

Omega-3 That Poison for Tumors

3D tumors that disintegrate within a few days thanks to the action of a well-known Omega-3 (DHA, found mainly in fish) — this is the exceptional discovery by University of Louvain. Hungry for fatty acids, tumor cells in acidosis gorge themselves on DHA but are unable to store it correctly and literally poison themselves. The result? They die. Credit: Copyright UCLouvain

So-called “good fatty acids” are essential for human health and much sought after by those who try to eat healthily. Among the Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA or docosahexaenoic acid is crucial to 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. How it works is the subject of a major discovery by a multidisciplinary team of University of Louvain (UCLouvain) researchers, who have just elucidated the biochemical mechanism that allows DHA and other related fatty acids to slow the development of tumors. This is a major advance that has recently been published in the prestigious journal Cell Metabolism.

Key to the discovery: interdisciplinarity

In 2016, Olivier Feron’s UCLouvain team, which specializes in oncology, discovered that cells in an acidic microenvironment (acidosis) within tumors replace glucose with lipids as an energy source in order to multiply. In collaboration with UCLouvain’s Cyril Corbet, 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. Meanwhile, Yvan Larondelle, a professor in the UCLouvain Faculty of Bioengineering, whose team is developing improved dietary lipid sources, proposed to Prof. Feron that they combine their skills in a research project, led by PhD candidate Emeline Dierge, to evaluate the behavior of tumor cells in the presence of different fatty acids.


3D tumors that disintegrate within a few days thanks to the action of a well-known Omega-3 (DHA, found mainly in fish) — this is the exceptional discovery by University of Louvain. Hungry for fatty acids, tumor cells in acidosis gorge themselves on DHA but are unable to store it correctly and literally poison themselves. The result? They die. Credit: Copyright UCLouvain

Thanks to the support of the Fondation Louvain, the Belgian Cancer Foundation, and the Télévie telethon, the team quickly identified that these acidotic tumor cells responded in diametrically opposite ways depending on the fatty acid they were absorbing. Within a few weeks, the results were both impressive and surprising. “We soon found that certain fatty acids stimulated the tumor cells while others killed them,” the researchers explained. DHA literally poisons them.

A fatal overload

The poison acts on tumor cells via a phenomenon called ferroptosis, a type of cell death linked to the peroxidation of certain fatty acids. The greater the amount of unsaturated fatty acids in the cell, the greater the risk of their oxidation. Normally, in the acidic compartment within 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 the DHA, which oxidizes and leads to cell death. By using a lipid metabolism inhibitor that prevents the formation of lipid droplets, researchers were able to observe that this phenomenon is further amplified, which confirms the identified mechanism and opens the door to combined treatment possibilities.

For their study, UCLouvain researchers used a 3D tumor cell culture system, called spheroids. In the presence of DHA, spheroids first grow and then implode. The team also administered a DHA-enriched diet to mice with tumors. The result: tumor development was significantly slowed compared to that in mice on a conventional diet.

This UCLouvain study shows the value of DHA in fighting cancer. “For an adult,” the UCLouvain researchers stated, “it’s recommended to consume at least 250 mg of DHA per day. But studies show that our diet provides on average only 50 to 100 mg per day. This is well below the minimum recommended intake.”

Reference: 11 June 2021, Cell Metabolism.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2021.05.016

16 Comments on "An Omega-3 That’s Poison for Cancer Tumors"

  1. So… All those hippy-dippy naturopaths were correct… 40 years ago. Just didn’t have the lab furniture, the white coat and the credentials. Well… now we know HOW it works. 👍

    QUOTH STUART: Look what I can do!
    It’s a MAD, MAD WORLD.

  2. Michael Bray | June 12, 2021 at 6:59 am | Reply

    Best source of omega 3 are direct from the source, algae! Not synthesised through a fish.

  3. Wasn’t there a recent study published by a European Health agency that showed people who took fish oil supplements were measurably more likely (20 to 30%) to develop arrhythmia?

  4. Wasn’t there a recent study published by a European Health agency that showed people who took fish oil supplements were measurably more likely (20 to 30%) to develop arrhythmia?

  5. Definitely propagandist against all the recent studies demonstrating that Omega 3s aren’t all that beneficial.

  6. This isn’t news to the natural health community. It’s been a point of ridicule to dissuade cancer victims from seeking alternative therapy but this is standard care outside of mainstream medicine.
    Glad to see this report. Since the info us useful, that means it will be buried, ignored, and the researchers involved may even be discredited or threatened.

  7. Too much vit D will also kill you

  8. Is it same mechanism for Gliablastomas tumors??? Thanks for reply… Mike W.

  9. Any difference for Flax seed over Fish oil?

  10. So it frustrated me as to why when a patient starts chemo the oncologists highly advise you to get off any vitamins including fish oil….whyyyyy???!! If this is honestly true then why do oncologists ask you to get off them while having chemotherapy

  11. Apparently most of the commenters believe you should only publish if the hypothesis is testing existing medical advice. So what if advice has been to stop taking supplement before starting cancer treatment? Or that other studies have shown supplements in healthy people can cause problems. Neither of those points disproves the result of this study nor does finding these results suggest the authors are providing advice of any sort let alone contradicting any particular oncologist. Generally this result is interesting when thinking about studies suggesting cannabinoids can have similar effects, given that cannabinoids are similar to, even biologically synthesized from, these fatty acids. That would back up the general mechanism and suggest that both diet and potentially exo-cannabinoids could be useful in preventing or treating cancer. Not that any of this constitutes advice that eating loads of fish or smoking loads of weed is a cure, or even advisable.

  12. I started taking higher dose Omega3s (1500mg) daily and noticed that my morning asthma cough is completely gone. It definitely works on inflammation.

  13. Another great source of the omega-3’s we need is grass-fed beef and grass-fed butter. This has the wonderful K2 in it as well. America needs to ditch its corn addiction.

  14. I have seen people recover from brain damage from car wrecks and drug overdoses by taking fish oil. I have also seen people recover from epilepsy.
    So i have seen it work on not just cancer. Its good to see articles like this one confirming that fish oil is good for you. Thank you!

  15. @Maree, because Chemo is to kill all cells not just Cancer cells, a race to see who will be stronger to survive the chemo, you or the Cancer.

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