A new study in mice suggests that palmitic acid found in palm oils may promote cancer metastasis, Medical News Today wrote on 16 November.

Led by Dr Salvador Aznar-Benitah, of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, in Barcelona, the research suggested that palmitic acid – a fatty acid (FA) found in palm oil could increase the metastasis of cancer, the report said.

Published in Nature Trusted Source, the new study aimed to understand whether different FAs caused changes that increased the risk of cancer metastasis, according to the report.

The team exposed human mouth and skin cancer cells to three dietary FAs: palmitic acid, oleic acid, and linoleic acid, Medical News Today wrote, and after four days of exposure, the researchers transferred the cells to where they would belong in mice. The mice received a typical diet during the study.

Although none of the FAs promoted cancer formation, according to the report, palmitic acid was found to promote the increased expression of genes associated with metastasis and the size of existing metastatic lesions.

The effects of FAs could differ, depending on tumour type, with the study finding that oleic acid inhibited the spread of both mouth and skin cancers, while previous studies had found that it promoted cervical cancers.

In a separate experiment, the group tested the “memory” of cells exposed to palmitic acid, the report said.

Human mouth cancer cells were exposed to palmitic acid for four days, and then were grown without any palmitic acid for a further 14 days, according to the report. The team then implanted the cells, as before, into mice that received a typical diet.

The researchers found that the tumour cells exposed to palmitic acid were still highly metastatic, Medical News Today wrote.

According to the authors of the study paper, this “memory” is associated with epigenetic changes — reversible changes, caused by environmental factors, that alter how genes work without changing the DNA sequence.

A study completed in 2017 had shown an increased risk of metastasis, Dr Aznar-Benitah said, but the mechanism behind this was unknown.

“In this study, we detail the process and reveal the involvement of a metastatic capacity ‘memory’ factor, and we point to a therapeutic approach to reverse it. This is promising.”

The hope was to move the technology into clinical trials, Dr Aznar-Benitah said.

“If things keep on going as planned, we could start the first clinical trial in a couple of years.”