Palmitic acid, a major component of palm oil that is used in processed foods, peanut butter and popular brands of toothpaste, could help metastasize (spread) cancer cells in up to half of all sufferers.
The discovery is being hailed as a breakthrough—although the researchers at the Institute for Research in Barcelona (IRB) have so far seen it happen only in laboratory mice, and the theory hasn't been tested on humans.
However, part of the picture has been seen in human cancer patients. A protein called CD36 has been found in a range of cancer cells, including oral tumours, melanoma skin cancer, ovarian, bladder, lung and breast cancers—and the protein feeds off palmitic acid.
In the experiment on laboratory mice, the researchers gave them food that contained palmitic acid, and discovered that the cancer spread in half of them.
Conversely, the researchers, funded by Worldwide Cancer Research, also discovered that tumour cells stopped metastasizing when the CD36 proteins were blocked.