Long revered as a “superfood” with good vitamin and fat content, the avocado is being used in the development of a drug that researchers hope will one day be able to fight blood cancer. In a study published in the journal Cancer Research, Paul Spagnuolo, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, writes of a fat in avocados that combats acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare and deadly form of cancer, by targeting leukemia stem cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.
The prognosis for AML patients is typically not good because there are few treatment options. For 90 percent of those who are older than 65, the disease is fatal in five years. Spagnuolo hopes a new drug made from Avocatin B–the name of the lipid that has been shown to destroy leukemia stem cells–may help increase their life expectancy or quality of life. While a drug for leukemia derived from avocados is still years away, even those without cancer can still benefit from the food.
According to Professor Spagnuolo, the stem cell is really the cell that drives the disease. The stem cell is largely responsible for the disease developing and it is the reason why so many patients with leukemia relapse. His group has performed many rounds of testing to determine how this new drug works at a molecular level and confirmed that it targets stem cells selectively, leaving healthy cells unharmed.
There are multiple potential applications for Avocatin B beyond oncology, and the drug is just one of several promising compounds that Spagnuolo and his team have isolated from a library of nutraceuticals. Most labs would use food or plant extracts, but Spagnuolo prefers the precision of using nutraceuticals with defined structures.
“Extracts are less refined. The contents of an extract can vary from plant to plant and year to year, depending on lots of factors — on the soil, the location, the amount of sunlight, the rain,” said Spagnuolo. “Evaluating a nutraceutical as a potential clinical drug requires in-depth evaluation at the molecular level. This approach provides a clearer understanding of how the nutraceutical works, and it means we can reproduce the effects more accurately and consistently. This is critical to safely translating our lab work into a reliable drug that could be used in oncology clinics.”
Avocados have many nutritional benefits. But as this study shows, the evidence for the potential health benefits from avocados is accumulating.