A compound in the fats in Louisiana oysters could be a key ingredient in treating and preventing cancer, according to Jack Losso, LSU AgCenter food science researcher. He has found that ceramide found in oysters can restrict blood vessel growth and development of cancer cells in test tubes. It can also inhibit blood vessel growth in rats.
By preventing the formation of blood vessels, called angiogenesis, the compound keeps cancer cells from multiplying because they can’t grow without nutrients from the blood.
Losso said ceramide works on human breast cancer cells both in test tubes and in laboratory rats. Breast cancer cells come in two types – hormone-dependent and hormone-independent. Hormone-dependent cells appear early while hormone-independent cells appear later and are more difficult to treat, Losso said.
"They can grow on their own without hormone stimulation," he said of the hormone-independent cells. "But when put in contact with ceramide, tumors begin dying within 48 hours."
Losso gathers ceramide from oysters by blending the oyster meat and extracting the lipid with an organic solvent – the same one that’s used to extract oil from corn and soybeans. After the oil is extracted, the ceramide is removed and concentrated.
"Ceramide is a novel way of treating cancer cells," said Losso, who said the compound is also found in other marine animals, including bivalves, jellyfish, abalone and menhaden.
Although it’s based on cow’s milk and similar to that found in oysters, the ceramide now used is synthetic, he said. The advantage of ceramide from oysters is that it’s naturally occurring and can be a preventative as well as a treatment. In addition, the compound is stable.
Losso’s work is funded through the Sea Grant college program along with early funding from the LSU AgCenter.
(This article was published in the fall 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)