A nutrient found in beef, lamb, and dairy products bolsters the body’s immune cells to fight tumours, scientists have found.
Trans-vaccenic acid (TVA) – a type of fatty acid found in breastmilk but mainly obtained through diet – has been shown to help immune cells known as CD8+ T to invade tumours and destroy cancer cells.
The findings, published in the journal Nature, also showed cancer patients with higher levels of TVA circulating in the blood responded better to immunotherapy treatment.
This suggests that TVA could have potential as a nutritional supplement to complement clinical treatments for cancer, the scientists said.
Dr Jing Chen, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and one of the senior authors of the new study, said: “There are many studies trying to decipher the link between diet and human health, and it’s very difficult to understand the underlying mechanisms because of the wide variety of foods people eat.”
He added: “By focusing on nutrients that can activate T cell responses, we found one that actually enhances anti-tumour immunity by activating an important immune pathway.”
To understand how TVA improves the ability of CD8+T cells to fight cancer, the researchers conducted experiments on mice.
Rodents who were on a diet enriched with TVA were found to significantly reduce their tumour growth potential of melanoma and colon cancer cells, compared to mice fed a control diet.
The researchers also investigated the mechanism by which TVA helps immune cells battle cancer and found it to deactivate a protein on the surface of a cell called GPR43 and activate a cell signalling process known as the CREB pathway, which involved functions such as cell growth and survival.
The team then analysed blood samples taken from patients undergoing immunotherapy treatment for lymphoma and found that patients with higher levels of TVA tended to respond to treatment better than those with lower levels.
They also tested leukaemia cell lines – lab-grown cells that come from a single parent cell – and saw that TVA enhanced the ability of an immunotherapy drug to kill leukaemia cells.
However they cautioned that while TVA is present in beef, lamb and dairy products such as milk and cheese, it is important to bear in mind that there is a growing body of evidence that consuming too much red meat and dairy may be detrimental to health.
Instead, Dr Chen suggests TVA could be used as a dietary supplement to help with various cancer treatments.
He said: “To see that a single nutrient like TVA has a very targeted mechanism on a targeted immune cell type, with a very profound physiological response at the whole organism level—I find that really amazing and intriguing.”