The researchers have demonstrated in a series of laboratory experiments on breast cancer cell lines that oleic acid dramatically cuts the levels of an oncogene called Her-2/neu (also known as erb B-2). High levels of Her-2/neu occur in over a fifth of breast cancer patients and are associated with highly aggressive tumours that have a poor prognosis.
Not only did oleic acid suppress over-expression of the gene, other tests on the cell lines showed that it also boosted the effectiveness of trastuzumab (Herceptin), the monoclonal antibody treatment that targets the Her-2/neu gene and has helped to prolong the lives of many breast cancer patients.
Lead researcher, Dr Javier Menendez, assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and a research scientist with the Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Research Institute, said: "Our findings underpin epidemiological studies that show that the Mediterranean diet has significant protective effects against cancer, heart disease and ageing."
The strongest evidence that monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid may influence breast cancer risk comes from studies of southern European populations, but animal research to date has thrown up inconsistent results, possibly because olive oil has been administered as a mixture of several fatty acids and other natural protections and not on its own.
"To our knowledge this is the first report that a dietary monounsaturated fatty acid previously suggested to be protective against breast cancer significantly down-regulates the expression of Her-2/neu, cutting it by up to 46%. Her-2/neu i
Contact: Margaret Willson
European Society for Medical Oncology