Ever heard of sphingolipids? How about ceramides?
We hadn’t, until we came across some cancer studies focused on oyster-derived fats.
It turns out that an obscure class of fats (lipids) from oysters, dairy foods, eggs, and soybeans has promising anti-cancer properties.
Oysters rank high among the richest sources of these chemicals – called sphingolipids – whose levels in foods vary widely.
Per capita sphingolipid consumption in the United States is very small … estimated at only about four ounces per year.
But very small amounts of this “functional” food factor may go a long way toward supporting immune health.
Why would that be?
The anti-cancer potential of ceramides
The body converts dietary sphingolipids into compounds like the ones human cells use to regulate their growth, differentiation (proper reproduction), angiogenesis (blood supply), and programmed death (apoptosis).
These same cell functions control the genesis, growth, and fate of human cancers … which explains why excitement about sphingolipids runs rampant in the realm of cancer research.
In particular, a class of sphingolipids called ceramides “is now at the forefront of cancer research”, according to the authors of a recent review paper from the Medical University of South Carolina.
As the Carolina researchers wrote earlier this year, “… ceramide is thought to induce death, growth inhibition, and senescence in cancer cells.” (Saddoughi SA et al. 2013)
Experimental studies show that feeding animals sphingolipids inhibits the genesis of colon cancers while lowering blood levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
Professor Jack Losso, Ph.D., of the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center described one beneficial effect of ceramides from oysters, called anti-angiogenesis:
“When working with breast cancer cells and introducing oyster ceramides into those cells, the ceramides appear to fight the cancer by blocking the blood supply to the tumor and preventing it from growing.” (Bansode RR et al. 2011)
And ceramides benefits may extend to treatment, since they appear to make cancer cells more vulnerable to chemotherapy drugs (Guillermet-Guibert J et al. 2009; Beckham TH et al. 2013). .
LSU studies find that oyster fats curb breast cancer
Ceramides came to our attention via studies in rats and in human breast-cancer cells, conducted by Jack Losso, Ph.D. and his colleagues at LSU AgCenter (Chintalapati M et al. 2009; Bansode RR et al. 2011).
Losso’s team researches “functional” foods, with an emphasis on those that can curb expression of inflammatory genes and the unhealthful blood vessel growth (angiogenesis) that defines macular degeneration and feeds growing cancers.
Once we dug deeper into research on ceramides, it was immediately apparent that the LSU team’s findings dovetailed with the promising results of a recent surge of ceramides research:
- Oyster ceramides fought both hormone-dependent and hormone-independent breast tumor cells in test tubes and killed them within 48 hours.
- In rats treated with oyster ceramides, blood vessel growth that simulates cancer cell growth and proliferation dropped by 57 percent in seven days, with no adverse side effects.
Although the rats received concentrated ceramide injections, the compound can just as easily be taken orally in pill form, said Dr. Losso.
Most ceramide now used in labs is synthetic, based on cows’ milk, Losso said. “It’s similar to that found in oysters but with a different structure.”
The advantages of ceramide, he added, are that it is naturally occurring and can be a preventative measure as well as a treatment. In addition, the compound is stable.
“It’s in the oil,” Losso said of ceramide, making it a “healthy fat.”
Professor Losso suggested that an oyster-rich diet could conceivably aid in cancer prevention:
“You could eat the oysters raw or cooked. But you can’t grill with those popular counter-top grills that discard the fat. The ceramide is in the oil, which is lost when you use a grill that is tilted.”
Although ceramides occur in a variety of plants and animals, the type of ceramide differs by species.
Oysters accumulate specific kinds of ceramides as they ingest phytoplankton … types that appear to possess particular anti-cancer potential.
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- Bansode RR, Ahmedna M, Svoboda KR, Losso JN. Coupling in vitro and in vivo paradigm reveals a dose dependent inhibition of angiogenesis followed by initiation of autophagy by C6-ceramide. Int J Biol Sci. 2011;7(5):629-44. Epub 2011 May 19.
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