A new study suggests that eating red meat and dairy could help to fight cancer.

Trans-vaccenic acid (TVA) which is a fatty acid found in beef, lamb and dairy products improves the ability of immune cells to fight tumours, scientists have discovered.

The study, published in the journal Nature, also shows that patients with higher levels of TVA in their blood responded better to immunotherapy, suggesting that it could work as a nutritional supplement to complement clinical cancer treatments. 

Professor Jing Chen, of the University of Chicago in the US, said: “There are many studies trying to decipher the link between diet and human health, and it’s very difficult to understand the underlying mechanisms because of the wide variety of foods people eat.

Oxford Mail: Trans-vaccenic acid (TVA) is a fatty acid found in beef, lamb and dairy productsTrans-vaccenic acid (TVA) is a fatty acid found in beef, lamb and dairy products (Image: Getty Images)

“But if we focus on just the nutrients and metabolites derived from food, we begin to see how they influence physiology and pathology.

“By focusing on nutrients that can activate T cell responses, we found one that actually enhances anti-tumour immunity by activating an important immune pathway.”

To get these results the team started with a database of around 700 known metabolites, small molecules that come from food, and assembled a “blood nutrient” library consisting of 235 bioactive molecules derived from nutrients.

Then, they screened the compounds in this new library for their ability to influence anti-tumour immunity.

Following an evaluation of the top six candidates in both human and mouse cells, scientists found that TVA performed the best.

Prof Chen said: “After millions of years of evolution, there are only a couple hundred metabolites derived from food that end up circulating in the blood, so that means they could have some importance in our biology.

“To see that a single nutrient like TVA has a very targeted mechanism on a targeted immune cell type, with a very profound physiological response at the whole organism level—I find that really amazing and intriguing.”

Feeding mice a diet enriched with TVA was found to significantly reduce the tumour growth potential of melanoma and colon cancer cells as well as enhancing the body’s ability to infiltrate tumours.

Scientists then analysed blood samples from hospital patients undergoing immunotherapy treatment for lymphoma. This led to the discovery that patients with higher levels of TVA tended to respond to treatment better than those with lower levels.

TVA enhanced the ability of an immunotherapy drug to kill leukaemia cells in patients, the study discovered.

However, the authors do not believe eating excessive red meat is the solution and hope to find similar results in plants.

Professor Chen added: “There is a growing body of evidence about the detrimental health effects of consuming too much red meat and dairy, so this study shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to eat more cheeseburgers and pizza.

“There is early data showing that other fatty acids from plants signal through a similar receptor, so we believe there is a high possibility that nutrients from plants can do the same thing by activating the CREB pathway as well.”