A common compound found in extra virgin olive oil might be the next best hope in the fight against cancer. Oleocanthal, which already is associated with a number of beneficial health effects, has unprecedented success killing human cancer cells when exposed to them in a lab, according to a recent study published in Molecular & Cellular Oncology. The best part? The compound leaves healthy cells unharmed.
The study, performed by scientists at Rutgers University and Hunter College, built on previous work that had suggested oleocanthal had lethal effects on cancer. What researchers didn’t know was why. They hypothesized that the compound triggered a self-defense sequence in cancer cells, but what they found was even more interesting.
In fact, the oleocanthal compromises the cell barrier where cancer cells partition off their waste products. Think about the colon rupturing in a human and its contents escaping into the rest of the body, and you get the idea. “Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose,” Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers, said in a press release.
The oleocanthal works quickly, too. “Amazingly, OC induced cell death in all cancer cells examined — as rapidly as 30 minutes after treatment,” the study reports.
The next task is to figure out why the oleocanthal killed cancer cells but merely put healthy cells into a dormant phase, or “put them to sleep,” as Breslin put it, from which they recovered in a day or so. “The data presented here indicates that cancer cells having fragile lysosomal membranes — as compared to non-cancerous cells — are susceptible to lysosomotropic agent-induced cell death,” the study says. “Therefore, targeting lysosomal membrane stabiltiy represents a novel approach to induce cancer-specific cell death.”
Oleocanthal wasn’t even isolated and named until 2005, but there is now a growing body of research about its numerous health benefits. It has been observed as an effective agent against inflammatory responses, which means it can reduce some of the harms that accompany ailments like heart disease and cancer, and even protect against damage caused by air pollution. And a 2013 study found that the compound can help ward off Alzheimer’s by physically removing the harmful plaques that build up in the brain as the disease progresses.
The news keeps getting better for olives. People who eat a Mediterranean diet, which is characterized by fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables and whole grains along with plenty olive oil, have been found to have lower rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers, as well as longer life expectancies than other populations. It looks more and more likely that oleocanthal is a key component of the diet’s healthy outcomes.
Of course, it’s not as simple as to say that you can just consume more olive oil to fight off cancer in your body. There are a lot of variables involved — and there’s a long way to go from killing cancer cells in a lab to proving that the same process actually works on human beings. But for now it’s not a bad idea to increase consumption of olive oil.
While oleocanthal isn’t found in all olive oils, and it isn’t listed on the label, you can increase your chances of getting an oil that contains the compound by purchasing bottles labeled as early harvest or extra virgin. All the evidence points to it having extraordinary benefits to your health and well-being — and we’re only starting to unlock the mystery of why.