Hydroxytyrosol May Help Prevent Colon Cancer Spread, New Research Suggests

During in vitro experiments, hydroxytyrosol, a prominent olive oil polyphenol, was found to target a protein involved in cancer cell reproduction.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Sep. 28, 2023 15:00 UTC

New research sheds light on how hydrox­y­ty­rosol, one of the main phe­no­lic com­pounds of extra vir­gin olive oil, might help pre­vent the spread of colon can­cer.

In a study pub­lished in Pharmacological Research, sci­en­tists from the Biomedical Institute of Research in Málaga and the Laboratory of Epigenetics of Lipid Metabolism at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Studies (IMDEA) found that hydrox­y­ty­rosol increased global DNA methy­la­tion.

DNA methy­la­tion is one of the mech­a­nisms that can change the expres­sion of DNA, which can acti­vate or deac­ti­vate a spe­cific func­tion,” Andrea del Saz-Lara, a researcher at IMDEA and co-author of the study, told Olive Oil Times. Just like a switch, it might express an on’ sta­tus or an off’ sta­tus.”

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The map of those changes includes thou­sands of mod­i­fi­ca­tions. By map­ping these alter­ations, the sci­en­tists found that a spe­cific pro­tein involved in can­cer cell repro­duc­tion, known as the endothe­lin recep­tor type A gene, could effec­tively be tar­geted by hydrox­y­ty­rosol sup­ple­men­ta­tion in a lab­o­ra­tory envi­ron­ment.

The researchers indi­cated that these find­ings could pave the way to bet­ter under­stand how treat­ments focused on hydrox­y­ty­rosol may pre­vent the spread of colon can­cer.

According to the World Health Organization, colon and rec­tal can­cer, often called col­orec­tal can­cer, is the third most com­mon type of can­cer glob­ally, with roughly 1.93 mil­lion cases diag­nosed annu­ally. In 2020, 916,000 peo­ple died from col­orec­tal can­cer.

In the study, the sci­en­tists noted how increas­ing evi­dence demon­strates that fol­low­ing the Mediterranean diet and con­sum­ing extra vir­gin olive oil have pre­ven­ta­tive and pro­tec­tive qual­i­ties against other types of chronic dis­eases.

Previous lit­er­a­ture told us how broad the impacts of hydrox­y­ty­rosol on health could be,” del Saz-Lara said. It is con­sid­ered the most rel­e­vant among the many phe­no­lic com­pounds of extra vir­gin olive oil. So we decided to inves­ti­gate how it would affect colon can­cer cells.”


Hydroxytyrosol is a nat­ural polyphe­nol com­pound found in olives and olive oil. It is con­sid­ered one of the key bioac­tive com­pounds respon­si­ble for many of the health ben­e­fits asso­ci­ated with olive oil, par­tic­u­larly extra vir­gin olive oil. Here are some impor­tant points about hydrox­y­ty­rosol:

1. Antioxidant Properties: Hydroxytyrosol is a pow­er­ful antiox­i­dant. It helps pro­tect cells from oxida­tive dam­age caused by free rad­i­cals, which are unsta­ble mol­e­cules that can harm cells and con­tribute to var­i­ous dis­eases, includ­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases and can­cer.

2. Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Hydroxytyrosol has anti-inflam­ma­tory prop­er­ties, which can help reduce inflam­ma­tion in the body. Chronic inflam­ma­tion is linked to var­i­ous health issues, includ­ing chronic dis­eases.

3. Heart Health: Research sug­gests that hydrox­y­ty­rosol may have a pos­i­tive impact on heart health. It can help improve blood ves­sel func­tion, reduce blood pres­sure, and lower the risk of heart dis­ease.

4. Neuroprotective Properties: Some stud­ies have indi­cated that hydrox­y­ty­rosol may have neu­ro­pro­tec­tive effects, poten­tially reduc­ing the risk of neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

5. Anti-Cancer Potential: There is some evi­dence to sug­gest that hydrox­y­ty­rosol may have anti-can­cer prop­er­ties by inhibit­ing the growth of can­cer cells and induc­ing apop­to­sis (pro­grammed cell death) in can­cer cells.

6. Skin Health: Hydroxytyrosol may con­tribute to the anti-aging and skin-pro­tec­tive prop­er­ties of olive oil when applied top­i­cally or con­sumed reg­u­larly.

Extra vir­gin olive oil typ­i­cally con­tains higher lev­els of hydrox­y­ty­rosol com­pared to refined olive oil because it under­goes min­i­mal pro­cess­ing and retains more of the nat­ural com­pounds present in olives.

We hope that this research and the next steps in research it con­veys could lead to a decreased risk of colon can­cer occur­rence,” she added.

Hydroxytyrosol is one of extra vir­gin olive oil’s most stud­ied organic com­pounds. Since the 1990s, it has been at the core of research aim­ing to under­stand the mech­a­nisms behind the health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil.

Researchers believe hydrox­y­ty­rosol plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in slow­ing the devel­op­ment and mit­i­gat­ing the symp­toms of neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­ders, dia­betes, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases and lung patholo­gies.

It is also believed that it may con­tribute to can­cer pre­ven­tion and cur­tail the impact of the acquired immun­od­e­fi­ciency syn­drome (AIDS).

Our exper­i­ment focused on the cell line that we had at our dis­posal, the colon can­cer cells,” del Saz-Lara said. Further research will extend the inves­ti­ga­tion to other types of can­cer cells.”

Cell lines are pop­u­la­tions of cells that can stay in vitro cul­ture for longer than other types of cells and are usu­ally cloned by one primeval cell. Caco‑2 cell lines, such as those stud­ied in the new research, com­prise colon car­ci­noma cells.


They are the focus of sev­eral lines of research because of their abil­ity to spon­ta­neously assume some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of other local cells, such as those on the sur­face of the small and large intestines.

While the impact of hydrox­y­ty­rosol in vitro is promis­ing, more research is required to eval­u­ate its poten­tial impact on human health.

We are see­ing a very inter­est­ing mech­a­nism in a lab envi­ron­ment,” del Saz-Lara said. Further stud­ies will eval­u­ate how and if those changes hap­pen in ani­mals and humans.”

One of the qual­i­ties of hydrox­y­ty­rosol prompt­ing fur­ther research is its 99 per­cent bio-avail­abil­ity. This char­ac­ter­is­tic allows almost com­plete inte­gra­tion into the human body upon con­sump­tion.

This work reveals the capac­ity of cer­tain nutri­ents or dietary bioac­tive com­po­nents to reg­u­late our epigenome, thus reduc­ing the risk of cer­tain dis­eases,” co-authors Hatim Boughanem and María del Carmen López de las Hazas said.

This opens the way to the pos­si­bil­ity of research­ing, and, at the same time, incor­po­rat­ing new dietary com­po­nents into our diet to improve our health and pre­vent preva­lent dis­eases,” they con­cluded.


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