Resarchers discovered a direct link between high-fat diets and the onset of metastasis in human cancers. Their findings raise concern considering today´s unhealthy lifestyles, but may in fact lead to significant improvements in cancer therapy and prevention.

The biggest hurdle in developing effective anti-metastatic therapies is not knowing what the triggers of metastasis actually are. An essential metastasis trigger has been identified in a study at the IRB Barcelona, published just two weeks ago in Nature. It turns out the cell surface receptor CD36 (also known as FAT) is responsible for initiating and promoting metastasis in several types of human tumours. In healthy cells, CD36 serves the role of translocating fatty acids across the cell membrane.

The researchers discovered that inducing the expression of CD36 in non-metastatic human tumour cells made them turn highly metastatic. Given the direct link between fat metabolism and CD36 expression, the group also tested weather fat-rich diets could provoke the same response in mice injected with human tumours. Shockingly, they noted a 50% increase in onset and growth of metastasis, despite a bare 15% increase in lipids compared to the standard diet (so-called “Cafeteria  diet”). In contrast, blocking CD36 receptors with specific antibodies led to a dramatic reduction of 80 – 90% in the number of metastasis.

Although we have not yet tested this in all tumour types, we can state that CD36 is a general marker of metastatic cells, the first marker I know of that is generally specific to metastasis” says Salvador Aznar Benitah, head of the lab at IRB Barcelona.

The team additionally tested a specific fatty acid, palmitic acid, the main component of palm oil (and many other plant oils). Tumours treated with palmitic acid and later injected into mice similarly exhibited a 50% increase in frequency of metastasis.

It is vital that more research is carried out on the topic, especially because industrialized countries are rising in consumption of saturated fats and sugars at alarming rates. If this proves to be the case, some fundamental changes in nutritional guidelines might have to be considered.

Learn more about the recent discovery in the video bellow:


By Luka Zupančič, MSc, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna