An Indian American professor may have found anticancer effects in products of omega-3 fatty acid metabolism

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Aditi Das (left), professor of comparative biosciences, college of veterinary medicine; and Timothy Fan, professor of veterinary clinical medicine (Courtesy: University of Illinois)

Two researchers from the University of Illinois, including one Indian American, have reported in a new study that a class of molecules formed when the body metabolizes omega-3 fatty acids could inhibit cancer’s growth and spread, in mice.

The molecules, called endocannabinoids, are made naturally by the body and have similar properties to cannabinoids which are found in marijuana but don’t have the psychotropic effects.

According to a University of Illinois press release, Aditi Das, a professor of comparative biosciences and an affiliate of biochemistry at Illinois and Timothy Fan, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine and veterinary oncology report:

“In mice with tumors of osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that is notoriously painful and difficult to treat, endocannabinoids slowed the growth of tumors and blood vessels, inhibited the cancer cells from migrating and caused cancer cell death.”

“We have a built-in endocannabinoid system which is anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing. Now we see it is also anti-cancer, stopping the cells from proliferating or migrating. These molecules could address multiple problems: cancer, inflammation and pain,” Das is quoted saying in the press release.

Last year, Das and Fan identified a new group of omega-3 fatty-acid metabolites called endocannabinoid epoxides, or EDP-EAs, which had anti-inflammatory properties and targeted the same receptor in the body that cannabis does and since cannabis has been shown to have some anti-cancer properties, both professors were eager to know whether EDP-EAs also affect cancer cells.

They found out that the osteosarcoma tumors in the mice had metastasized to their lungs and there was an 80 percent increase in naturally occurring EDP-EAs in cancerous lung tissues over the lungs of healthy mice., according to the press release.

“The dramatic increase indicated that these molecules were doing something to the cancer – but we didn’t know if it was harmful or good. We asked, are they trying to stop the cancer, or facilitating it? So we studied the individual properties and saw that they are working against the cancer in several ways,” Das adds.

Das and Fan also found out that EDP-EAs did kill cancer cells when they had a higher concentration but were not as effective as other chemotherapeutic drugs which could be found in the market.

However, the compounds also combated the osteosarcoma in other ways as they slowed tumor growth by inhibiting new blood vessels from forming to supply the tumor with nutrients, prevented interactions between the cells and appeared to stop cancerous cells from migrating.

“The major cause of death from cancer is driven by the spread of tumor cells, which requires migration of cells. As such, therapies that have the potential to impede cell migration also could be useful for slowing down or inhibiting metastases,” Fan is quoted saying in the press release.

Das and Fan have isolated the most potent of the molecules and are working to develop derivatives that bind better to the cannabinoid receptor.

“Dietary consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to the formation of these substances in the body and may have some beneficial effects. However, if you have cancer, you want something concentrated and fast acting,” Das said.

“That’s where the endocannabinoid epoxide derivatives come into play – you could make a concentrated dose of the exact compound that’s most effective against the cancer. You could also mix this with other drugs such as chemotherapies,” Das added.

According to the press release, Das and Fan’s next plan is to perform preclinical studies in dogs since they develop osteosarcoma spontaneously like humans.

They also plan to study the effects of EDP-EAs derived from omega-3 fatty acids in other cancer types.

“Particular cancers that might be most interesting to study would be solid tumors or carcinomas, which tend to spread and cause pain within the skeleton. Some of the most common tumors that behave this way are breast, prostate, and lung carcinomas, and we can certainly explore these tumors in the future,” Fan added.

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