Our ancient ancestors' hunter-gatherer diets surely influenced human evolution.

As it happens, those diets provided omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in a fairly narrow range of amounts and proportions.

Traditional diets generally followed that pattern, and while our forebears died from unsanitary conditions, they generally enjoyed lower rates of chronic disease.

But today's “standard American diet” (SAD) is much lower in omega-3s and higher in omega-6s.

Among many other drawbacks to modern diets, this “omega imbalance” appears to promote chronic inflammation and associated conditions, including cancer. 

Fortunately, fast-growing lab evidence – plus the positive outcomes of preliminary small clinical trials – suggests that diets rich in omega-3 EPA and DHA from fish or fish oil may discourage the start or growth of common cancers. 

These “marine” omega-3 fats play distinct roles in the body, and exert generally desirable impacts on cancer cells. 

For example, see “Omega-3 DHA's Promising Anti-Cancer Power” and other cancer-related reports in the Omega-3s & Immunity section of our news archive.

Among the tumor types that marine omega-3s may inhibit and prevent, skin cancers rank as promising targets. (See “Omega-3s May Help Curb Skin Cancer”, “Dietary Fish Oil Found to Deflect Sun Damage”, “Fish Fats Called Credible Foes of Skin Aging and Skin Cancer”, and “Omega-3s Fight Skin Cancer in Mice”.)

Recent cell studies show that omega-3s fatty acids may even retard the progress of malignant melanoma – an aggressive, incurable cancer – by curbing tumor growth and inducing cancer-cell “suicide” (Zajdel A et al. 2013). 

While previous research links omega-3 fatty acids to reduced risk for several common cancers – including skin cancers – there's been very little research into omega-3s' effects on oral cancers.

Now, lab research from Britain shows that omega-3 EPA inhibits growth and induces cancer-cell suicide (apoptosis) in oral and skin cancers.

UK study sees positive impact on curbing skin and mouth cancer cells
The new study focused on squamous-cell carcinoma (SCC), which is one of the major forms of skin cancer (Nikolakopoulou Z et al. 2013).

Squamous cells abound in the outermost layers of the skin and also occur in the lining of the digestive tract, lungs, and other areas of the body.

Oral squamous cell carcinomas are the sixth most common cancer worldwide and remain very hard and expensive to treat.

Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London conducted in vitro (test tube) experiments to examine the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on SCC tumor cells.

The London team added EPA or DHA to malignant (late-stage) SCC cells as well to pre-malignant (early stage) squamous cells and to normal skin and oral squamous cells.

And they tested EPA and DHA separately in order to distinguish the two fats' distinct effects on SCC cells. 

Omega-3 EPA inhibited SCC cancer cells, safely
Encouragingly, omega-3 EPA from fish fat induced cell death in malignant and pre-malignant SCC cells, with no effect on healthy cells.

According to co-author Professor Kenneth Parkinson, “We found that the omega-3 fatty acid selectively inhibited the growth of the malignant and pre-malignant cells at doses which did not affect the normal cells.” 

“Surprisingly, we discovered this was partly due to an over-stimulation of a key growth factor (epidermal growth factor) which triggered cell death. This is a novel [anti-cancer] mechanism of action of these fatty acids.” (QMUL 2013)

Researchers urge clinical studies
Lead author Dr. Nikolakopoulou noted two key points (QMUL 2013): “As the doses needed to kill the cancer cells do not affect normal cells, especially with ... EPA, there is potential for using omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention and treatment of skin and oral cancers.”

“It may be that those at an increased risk ... could benefit from increased omega-3 fatty acids ... [and] as the skin and oral cancers are often easily accessible, there is the potential to deliver targeted doses locally via aerosols or gels.”

The Queen Mary team's results support urgent clinical testing of omega-3 EPA and DHA against SCC-type cancers.  
Only clinical research can prove their overall effectiveness and pinpoint the best doses of EPA and/or DHA for each SCC tumor type.

With millions harmed annually, it's urgent to probe the potential for marine-source omega-3s to help prevent or treat these prolific cripplers, maimers, and killers.

  • Nikolakopoulou Z, Nteliopoulos G, Michael-Titus AT, Parkinson EK. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids selectively inhibit growth in neoplastic oral keratinocytes by differentially activating ERK1/2. Carcinogenesis. 2013 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL). Omega-3 Fatty Acids Could Aid Cancer Prevention and Treatment. August 1, 2013. Accessed at http://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/news/items/smd/110592.html
  • Zajdel A, Wilczok A, Chodurek E, Gruchlik A, Dzierzewicz Z. Polyunsaturated fatty acids inhibit melanoma cell growth in vitro. Acta Pol Pharm. 2013 Mar-Apr;70(2):365-9.