Tours, France—Another health application of omega-3 fatty acids has been identified, this time proving a beneficial component in helping women undergoing breast cancer treatment. Specifically, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) was found to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment for certain cases of breast cancer. The findings were published late last year in the British Journal of Cancer, and may present a means to better combat breast cancer for the millions threatened by the disease, which is the most prevalent form of cancer in women. The research was led by Philippe Bougnoux, of the Henry S. Kaplan Cancer Center in Tours.

The study involved the ingestion of 1.8 grams of DHA daily by breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Results suggest that this relatively large dose of DHA is able to increase the sensitivity of cancerous cells to chemotherapy, while leaving healthy non-tumorous tissues unaffected. Chemotherapy often must be scaled back because of its toxic side effects on healthy tissue, reducing its ability to treat the cancer. With this DHA supplementation, chemotherapy can be made more effective without potentially sickening the patient by resorting to increasing chemical levels.

Solgar adResearchers explained this increased sensitivity to chemotherapy is the result of the oxidizing effects of DHA. This highly unsaturated fatty acid is absorbed by lipids in cell membranes, which happens more readily in quickly proliferating cells, as in the case of a tumor. Earlier studies had already shown that enriching cancerous tissue with DHA sensitized it to anti-cancer drugs, particularly a class of chemotherapy drugs called anthracyclines. Anti-cancer drugs induce oxidative stress, and breast cancer tissues seem to be made more sensitive to this with DHA present. Importantly for this study and the prospects of late-stage breast cancer patients, the more developed and aggressive cancer tissue is, the more pronounced the effect of DHA becomes. This explains why healthy, non-tumorous tissue is left alone during DHA treatment. DHA incorporates itself into tissue only as cells progress toward more developed cancerous states.

The research team was influenced by results from these earlier studies indicating the benefits of DHA for different types of cancer treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy. For this study, they chose to administer DHA to 25 breast cancer patients with rapidly developing visceral metastases, the lethal stage of breast cancer. They were looking to determine the safety and effectiveness of supplementing with DHA, and its ability to delay the progression of cancer and improve overall survival rate. The conclusion reached was that DHA supplementation was safe and effective in chemosensitizing cancerous tumors. In fact, the average survival time was longer in a sub-group that was better able to incorporate the DHA into tissue membranes. This high DHA group survived an average of 34 months, and one patient, who had late-stage breast cancer like the other participants, was still living some six years after the study. This suggests that DHA was the factor influencing the increased effectiveness of chemotherapy, and the resulting extension of survival time.


Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2010