Omega 3’s & cancer

The University of Texas

MD Anderson Cancer Center

Integrative Medicine Center

May, 2012

Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Their Role in Cancer Prevention and Treatment

By Peiying Yang PhD | Assistant Professor, General Oncology, MD Anderson
and Lorenzo Cohen, PhD | Professor and Director, Integrative Medicine Program
Omega-3 fatty acids (ω-3 FAs) come from two main sources: 1) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are derived from fish and fish oils and 2) Alpha-linolenic acid is abundant in green leafy vegetables, flaxseed and
rapeseed (canola) oils. These essential fatty acids can only come from a healthy diet and cannot be made by the human body. Generally, ω-3 FAs are considered natural anti-inflammatory agents as they help to regulate inflammatory pathways. Extensive research supports the protective role of marine-derived ω-3 FAs in decreasing risk factors for cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and sudden cardiac death. As a result, the FDA has approved
one specific fish oil supplement, Lovaza (containing both EPA and DHA in an ethyl ester form versus the more
common triglyceride form), for the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia (a condition in which triglyceride levels are
elevated). Unlike the beneficial effects of ω-3 FAs in cardiovascular disease, the role of ω-3 FAs for cancer
prevention and treatment remains uncertain.

Most preclinical studies show that ω-3 FAs decrease cancer cell growth and induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in various cancer types including solid and hematological tumors. Population-based studies have found that fish
consumption is inversely associated with the risk of various malignancies, including lung, colon, prostate,
breast, and pancreatic (i.e., as fish consumption goes up the risk of cancer goes down). Studies comparing people
with prostate cancer to those without prostate cancer suggest marine derived ω-3 FAs may be protective
against aggressive prostate cancer. ω-3 FAs may also be important in helping with symptom control. A recent
study found that high intake of ω-3 FAs was associated with decreased inflammation and lower levels of fatigue
in breast cancer survivors. Population-based studies, however, do not necessarily equate to causation and
clinical trials are needed in this area. One such clinical trial found that the EPA free fatty acids (6 months of
treatment) decreased the formation of colon polyps by 22.6% in people with familial adenomatous polyposis,
who have an increase risk of developing colorectal cancer. Thus, ω-3 FA could potentially prevent cancers, especially
those associated with chronic inflammation including colon, lung, and pancreatic cancer.

To fully evaluate the role of ω-3 FA in cancer management, more rigorous systematic studies need to be conducted. The National Institute for Health is funding a $20 million dollar study to explore if vitamin D and fish oil (EPA and DHA in an ethyl ester form), the VITAL study, can reduce the risk for developing cancer, heart disease, and stroke. This large trial, and many other ongoing clinical trials using other forms of ω-3 FA, will help determine the role of ω-3 FA in cancer prevention and treatment.

Source: MD Anderson – click here for more info

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