Genes may determine fish oil's breast cancer benefit

October 6, 2004 in Cancer Prevention, Nutrition Topics in the News, Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements

Genes may determine fish oil's breast cancer benefit

Fish oil may help lower the risk of breast cancer, but the benefit may depend largely on a woman's genetic makeup, researchers have found.

Their study of middle-age and older women in Singapore found that those who carried "low-activity" versions of certain genes were less likely to develop breast cancer when they ate a diet rich in fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids.

In contrast, fish oils provided no apparent breast cancer protection to women who carried other forms of the genes, which code for enzymes called glutathione S-transferases (GSTs).

GSTs are believed to rid the body of certain byproducts that are produced when omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized. In women with low-activity versions of the enzymes, these omega-3 byproducts would be expected to linger in the body for a longer time.

Therefore, the new findings support the hypothesis that it's the metabolic byproducts of omega-3 fats that confer breast cancer protection, said the lead researcher at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The results build on evidence from lab experiments that such omega-3 byproducts, which are produced by a process called lipid peroxidation, can kill breast cancer cells.

For this latest study, the scientists gathered data from a trial of more than 63,000 middle-age and older men and women in Singapore. They were able to analyze dietary reports and DNA samples from 399 women who developed breast cancer during the study, and 670 women who did not.

Focusing on variations in three GST genes, they found that omega-3 fatty acids lowered breast cancer risk only in women with low-activity forms of the genes.

Among women with these gene variations, high intake of omega-3 fatty acids appeared to cut breast cancer risk by up to 74%, depending on which combination of low-activity variants a woman carried. These are women whose bodies do a poor job of getting rid of the beneficial byproducts of omega-3 fatty acids.

The findings suggest that only some women may benefit from fatty fish when it comes to breast cancer risk.

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