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Omega-3 fatty acid EPA may help fight pancreatic cancer

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By David Liu, PHD

Friday Dec 7, 2012 (foodconsumer.org) -- Pancreatic cancer is probably the most lethal malignancy ever seen in humans.  Treatment options are limited and the survival rate is extremely low.  

A new study published in Journal of Cellular Biochemistry suggests that Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) promotes apoptosis of pancreatic cancer cells in vitro or kills pancreatic cancer cells, and protects against the development of pancreatic cancer in animals.

M. Fukui at School of Medicine, University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas and colleagues conducted a study earlier and found EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - two omega- 3 fatty acids found in oily fish can cause reactive oxygen species accumulation and induce caspase-8-depdent apoptosis in human breast cancer cells. That is, they kill cancer cells.

For the current study, Fukui et al. found EPA in the pancreas at a significantly higher level, compared to other organs. This finding led researchers to test the anticancer effect of EPA and DHA on human pancreatic cancer cells.
The researchers found both EPA and DHA induced reactive oxygen species accumulation and caspase-8-dependent cell death in human pancreatic cancer cells in the lab experiments.   This is something the researchers found when testing these omega-3 fatty acids against breast cancer cells.

Also, athymic nude mice fed on a diet supplemented with 5% fish oil, which is high in both EPA and DHA, were found to strongly suppress the growth of human pancreatic cancer xenografts probably by inducing oxidative stress and cell death. 

However, EPA can also induce autophagy in the cancer cells and induced autophagy could reduce the capability of the fatty acid to induce apoptosis. The induction of apoptosis is protective against cancer cells.

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded EPA along with an autophagy inhibitor may help increase the efficacy of the EPA treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Less than 5% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer may live over the first year of diagnosis.  The National Cancer Institute estimates that 43,920 people in the U.S. in 2012 are expected to be diagnosed with the disease and 37,390 will die from the disease in 2012.

Previous studies have shown that eating red, processed meat, having type 2 diabetes, drinking alcohol, high fructose corn syrup, tobacco smoking, drinking coffee, overweight and obesity, fatty diet, and soft drinks are associated with elevated risk of pancreatic cancer.

On the other hand, dietary antioxidants, Nigella sativa extract, vitamins, fruit and vegetables, vitamin D, calorie restriction, and Croton plant seed compound TPA may help prevent or treat pancreatic cancer, according to previous research.

EPA and DHA are available as supplements.  Fish oil is another source of EPA and DHA.

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