Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture


A team of researchers from Rutgers University and New York City’s Hunter College has discovered how a compound found in extra-virgin olive oil actually kills a variety of human cancer cells – without harming healthy cells.

This olive oil ingredient called “oleocanthal” has been long known to be capable of killing cancer cells, but how this process actually played out has not been understood.


A hypothesis by professor Paul Breslin at Rutgers University was that oleocanthal kills cancer cells by targeting a key protein that triggers apoptosis (programmed cell death).

This naturally occurring process does in contrast to necrosis, which is a form of traumatic cell death that results from acute cellular injury, instead, confer several advantages during an organism’s life-cycle. As apoptosis triggers damaged cells to self-destruct by upsetting the balance of ions in the cell membrane. This ability is indeed necessary since some cells need to be eliminated before causing harm.

Breslin teamed up with David Foster and Onica LeGendre of Hunter College to investigate this hypothesis. And the team have now published their findings in the journal “Molecular and Cellular Oncology.”

Their hypothesis was soon confirmed, apoptosis was indeed the mechanism behind. They were then surprised how quickly the oleocanthal compound managed to trigger apoptosis and kill cancer cells. Apoptosis should require between 16 and 24 hours to take effect. But oleocanthal was killing off the cancer cells within 30 minutes to an hour.


Evidently, something else, or something more than just apoptosis was at work. This led the team to look for other factors at play. They then discovered that oleocanthal was piercing the cancer cell’s vesicles. These small, membrane-bound spheres act within the cell. As they are extremely important for the movement of material within them. Oleocanthal punctured vestices making them collapse and pour out enzymes – which then triggers the cells to die. As Breslin comments; “Once you open one of those things, all hell breaks loose,”.

The researchers also noticed that oleocanthal did not harm healthy cells. It merely stopped their life cycles temporarily, “put them to sleep,” as Breslin comments. And after a day, the healthy cells resumed their cycles. The logic behind this could be that these vesicles, known as lysosomes are larger in cancer cells than in healthy cells, and contain a lot of waste. But this naturally needs to be examined more closely in future research, as Foster comments; “We also need to understand why it is that cancerous cells are more sensitive to oleocanthal than non-cancerous cells,”.

The testing has thus far only been carried out in the lab, but the researchers say that they will now move the research to the next phase and look to establish the effects of oleocanthal on cancer cells in living animals.

Perhaps oleocanthal could explain the reduced cancer occurrence in the Mediterranean diet? Where olive oil consumption is high. Future research will surely tell.

Oleocanthal rapidly and selectively induces cancer cell death via lysosomal membrane permeabilization (LMP)
Ingredient in Olive Oil Looks Promising in the Fight Against Cancer