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Drug derived from olive oil shows early promise for brain cancer patients

Published: 21 February 2024

An NIHR-supported trial of a drug derived from olive oil has shown promise in early studies for patients with an advanced form of brain cancer. 

Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain tumour and is aggressive. Most people die within one year of diagnosis. It affects 3,200 patients every year in the UK. 

The drug 

The drug idroxioleic acid (2-OHOA) is a synthetic lipid derived from olive oil. Lipids are a group of organic compounds which include fats and waxes. They play an important role in the structure of cell membranes. 

The drug comes in a sachet – a bit like Lemsip – and is taken with water three times a day. It restructures the abnormal membranes of cancer cells, which prevents the cancer from growing or spreading. 

Cell membranes are the exterior layer of a living cell. They help to regulate the growth of a cell. Within cancer cells the membranes are abnormal and it is easier for proteins within each cell to meet neighbouring proteins and signal to each other. These signals drive the disease’s growth. 

2-OHOA blocks the signals by making the membranes of cancerous cells act like normal cells. Stopping the signals stops the cancer from growing or spreading. A world first study of this new treatment led by The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and The Institute of Cancer Research suggests it could be effective for patients with glioblastoma.

The study results

Researchers recruited 54 patients with recurrent glioblastoma and other advanced solid tumours. Of these, 21 patients with glioblastoma were treated and 24% responded to the drug. One patient was still alive after three years, which is an exceptional response.

Phase 1/2 study lead Dr Juanita Lopez, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and Reader at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “Glioblastoma is an incredibly difficult disease to treat and, unfortunately, patients with advanced disease have very poor outcomes, often living for just a year after their diagnosis. There hasn’t been an effective new treatment for this patient group in nearly two decades, so drug development urgently needs to be accelerated.

“Unfortunately, patients with brain cancer often don’t have the opportunity to participate in early phase trials. This underpins the vital importance of research into novel new drugs like this, which is designed from the same building blocks as olive oil. 2-OHOA works by reshaping the walls of cancer cells, blocking crucial growth signals that drive cancer. By including glioblastoma patients in this study, we were able to more quickly show early and hopeful results, supporting their inclusion in the Phase 2b/3 trial. We’re very much looking forward to results from ongoing trials and hope this treatment eventually becomes widely available.”

The NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at the Royal Marsden and the ICR and the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre Network support the work of the Drug Development Unit, which supported the study.

Results were published in the British Journal of Cancer.

A phase three trial of the drug 2-OHOA is being launched by the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation, which is recruiting more than 200 newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients.

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