Cancer can be stopped with the smell of fruit: seen for the first time what happens in cancer cells

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Cancer can be stopped with the smell of fruit: seen for the first time what happens in cancer cells

Tumor growth can be inhibited by certain volatile compounds released by ripe fruit: one, in particular, has been shown to reduce the proliferation of neuroblastoma. Here's what researchers just discovered.

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Cancer can be stopped by the smell of fruit, or rather, by certain volatile compounds released by ripe fruit or fermented foods , which affect how genes are expressed within cells. This is what was discovered by a Californian research team that demonstrated for the first time how exposure to certain odors can block the growth of tumor cells , even those that do not have receptors for these same molecules. “ It was completely a surprise – admitted Anandasankar Ray, professor of molecular, cellular and systems biology at the University of California at Riverside, United States, leading the team that observed the phenomenon – . These molecules are able to modify the expression of genes even in tissues that do not have odor receptors, reaching the cell nucleus through the cell membrane ”.

Previous studies had already indicated that prolonged exposure to specific volatile compounds leads to changes in gene expression, however, focusing attention on the risks associated with some potentially dangerous substances for health. To date, very little is known about odors that can delay the onset of cancer, inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases. In this area of research, the team led by Professor Ray is evaluating the effects of some volatile compounds to which we are repeatedly exposed, such as those produced by microorganisms such as yeasts and lactic acid bacteria during the fermentation of many foods and drinks. One in particular, diacetyl , has opened up an entire field of investigation.

The smell of ripe fruit can block the growth of tumors

Certain odors, such as those given off by ripe fruit or fermented foods, can lead to changes in the way genes are expressed within cells, substantially reducing the growth of tumors. “ Our initial discovery was made using diacetyl, although this compound may not be the perfect candidate for a therapy ” stated Professor Ray who, starting from this volatile compound, released by yeast in fermenting fruit , together with colleagues are already working on identifying other compounds that lead to changes in gene expression.

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Diacetyl, specifically, is a compound that is widely used in food and drink flavourings, to impart a butter-like flavor in foods such as popcorn: it is found naturally in a variety of dairy products and is also a natural by-product of manufacturing of some fermented drinks, especially beer. However, its prolonged inhalation is dangerous (it can cause bronchiolitis obliterans), which is why, as part of the research, the team wanted to point out that, in this phase of the study, diacetyl was used as a ” proof of concept , that is, as proof of the validity of the principle, underlining how this first important discovery has opened an entire field of research on a family of compounds. “ The possibilities ,” Ray highlighted, “ are unlimited .”

The effects of diacetyl on the expression of the Gr63a gene in the antennae and brain of Drosophila melanogaster on different days of exposure / Credit: Haga-Yamanaka S. et al., eLife 2024

The effects of diacetyl on the expression of the Gr63a gene in the antennae and brain of Drosophila melanogaster on different days of exposure / Credit: Haga-Yamanaka S. et al., eLife 2024

In this first phase, laboratory experiments on fruit flies ( Drosophila melanogaster ), one of the model species for science, have shown that a few days of exposure to diacetyl induce changes in gene expression in the antennae and brain of these insects, substantially slowing the degeneration of photoreceptor cells linked to Huntington's disease . In separate experiments, the team also observed that similar changes occurred in mice and cultured human cells , in which exposure to diacetyl reduced the proliferation of neuroblastoma , a form of cancer that originates in certain types of nervous tissue. .

In these tumor cells, in particular, researchers have found that diacetyl can act as an inhibitor of histone deacetylases (HDACs), a family of enzymes involved in the regulation of gene expression, also targeted by some anticancer therapies. “ HDAC inhibitors are used as anti-tumor drugs and can also be used in the treatment of inflammatory diseases and neurodegeneration – explain the scholars -. When HDACs are inhibited, DNA coils less tightly in cells, leading to increased gene expression .”

This opens up the possibility that volatile compounds that act as inhibitors of these enzymes could delay cancer development, neurodegeneration or memory deficits in diseases, the team noted, detailing the results of their investigation in a newly published research paper on scientific magazine eLife . “ Alterations in gene expression and chromatin (the mixture of DNA and proteins that form chromosomes, ed.) are possible in an organism even without active consumption of the source of the volatile compound. The source could also be at a certain distance from the organism – added Professor Ray -. We have shown for the first time that some of these odorous molecules that we are exposed to and which are absorbed by cells in our skin, nose, lungs and probably also the brain through the bloodstream, are radically changing gene expression .”

The possible applications of the discovery

In addition to the implications related to the effects of these volatile compounds on human diseases, the discovery has enormous potential in agriculture , since HDACs are highly conserved even in plants. “ Plants appear to have a very strong response to some of these birds – highlighted Professor Ray -. Therefore, in plants, any process requiring changes in gene expression can now be affected by exposure to this special class of odorants .”

In other words, these volatile compounds act as phytochemicals that can modify gene expression levels and exploit the genetic potential of plants to improve the growth of roots, leaves, flowers and even responses to stresses, such as freezing and drought. “ Volatile substances can provide a therapeutic dose to plants and animals, without the need for pills or injections, ” concluded Ray, who has founded two start-ups and has already filed several patents based on his team's work . These compounds can simply be breathed in, almost giving a new meaning to odor-based therapy .”

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