Science is giving the public another reason to fall in love with olive oil, and it has nothing to do with how good it tastes.

According to new research, oleocanthal, an ingredient found in extra-virgin olive oil, may be capable of killing cancer cells in less than 60 minutes, while leaving healthy cells safe and sound.

The study authors, Paul Breslin, a Rutgers nutritional scientist, and David Foster and Onica LeGendre, two cancer biologists at New York City’s Hunter College, already knew that oleocanthal had the ability to kill some cancer cells, but were unclear how. They hypothesized that it could be targeting a key protein in cancer cells, one that triggers a programmed cell death.

“We needed to determine if oleocanthal was targeting that protein and causing the cells to die,” said Breslin in a university release.

A regular programmed cell death can take anywhere from 16 to 24 hours, and yet, when testing their theory and applying oleocanthal to cancer cells, the researchers found that cancer cells were dying within 30 to 60 minutes.

What was causing it? According to the press release, the cancer cells were being killed by their very own enzymes. More specifically, the oleocanthal punctured the vesicles inside the cancer cells, also known as lysosomes, which hold the cell’s waste, even more waste than one would find in a healthy cell. As Breslin put it, “Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose.”

In a summary of the findings, the authors wrote, “The data presented here indicates that cancer cells having fragile lysosomal membranes – as compared to non-cancerous cells – are susceptible to lysosomotropic agent-induced cell death. Therefore, targeting lysosomal membrane stability represents a novel approach to induce cancer-specific cell death.”

In good news, the oleocanthal didn’t harm the healthy cells. It simply, as Breslin put it, “put them to sleep” for a day, and then they resumed their normal functions.

The next step, according to Foster, the senior author of the study, will be to see if oleocanthal can kill or shrink cancer in living animals. He said, “We also need to understand why it is that cancerous cells are more sensitive to oleocanthal than non-cancerous cells.”

In addition to its potential cancer fighting abilities, olive oil is known for its other benefits. Researchers have found that the pantry staple may be anti-inflammatory as well as linked to cardiovascular health and Alzheimer's prevention.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Oncology.

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