Washington: In a major study, the researchers have shown that a fatty acid called dihomogamma-linolenic acid, or DGLA, can kill human cancer cells.
The study, published in Developmental Cell, found that DGLA can induce ferroptosis in an animal model and in actual human cancer cells. Ferroptosis is an iron-dependent type of cell death that was discovered in recent years and has become a focal point for disease research as it is closely related to many disease processes.
“If you could deliver DGLA precisely to a cancer cell, it could promote ferroptosis and lead to tumour cell death,” said study author Jennifer Watts from Washington State University in the US.
“Also, just knowing that this fat promotes ferroptosis might also affect how we think about conditions such as kidney disease and neurodegeneration where we want to prevent this type of cell death,” Watts added.
The research team revealed that DGLA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in small amounts in the human body, though rarely in the human diet. Compared to other fatty acids, such as those found in fish oil, DGLA is relatively understudied. Watts has been researching dietary fats including DGLA for nearly twenty years, using the nematode ‘Caenorhabditis elegans’ as an animal model.
A microscopic worm, C. elegans is often used in molecular research because it is transparent and allows scientists to easily study cell-level activity in a whole animal over its relatively short lifespan.
Results found in the C. elegans cells are also often transferable to human cells. The research team discovered that feeding nematodes a diet of DGLA-laden bacteria killed all the germ cells in the worms as well as the stem cells that make the germ cells.
The way the cells died carried many signs of ferroptosis.
To see if the results would translate to human cells, Watts team collaborated with Scott Dixon of Stanford University, who has been studying ferroptosis and its potential for battling cancer for many years. Taking what they had learned from the nematode work, the researchers showed that DGLA could induce ferroptosis in human cancer cells.
They also found interaction with another fatty acid class, called an ether lipid, that had a protective effect against DGLA. When they took out the ether lipids, the cells died faster in the presence of DGLA.