Spring 2023

Just a spoonful

Masonic Cancer Center researchers are exploring how olive oil and curcumin could help prevent a certain type of cancer

In the middle of a cancer research lab on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus—nestled between the petri dishes, microscopes, and computers—sits a refrigerator filled with $50,000 worth of olive oil donated by a small family-run olive grove in Greece.


This isn’t just any olive oil; it’s a special blend, chock-full of oleocanthal, a compound that has anti-inflammatory properties. And, if researchers at the U of M are correct, anticancer properties, too.

A new clinical trial, led by M Health Fairview oncologist Christopher Moertel, M.D., and Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota colleagues David Largaespada, Ph.D., and Pavlina Sverak, M.D., is exploring whether this olive oil—combined with a dash of curcumin, another anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric spice—could help certain people susceptible to cancer avoid the disease.

The trial, supported by the Children’s Tumor Foundation, takes a “nutraceutical” (or nonmedicinal) approach to cancer prevention for people who have neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), a lifelong genetic condition that can lead to malignant tumor growth.

While treatment exists for some aspects of NF1, it’s reserved for people whose tumors have progressed significantly, and there can be side effects. If this nutraceutical approach works, however, it could become a safe and easy way to slow or prevent tumor growth in people of all ages who have NF1.

People enrolled in the clinical trial take a spoonful of the olive oil and a capsule of curcumin (Moertel describes the taste of the special olive oil as “a little sharp, somewhat peppery”) twice a day for 12 months. The study is ongoing, but Sverak is hopeful. 

“We think this might be a dietary-based intervention that is effective yet gentle and that could be used safely long-term to prevent or slow the progression of this serious progressive condition,” Sverak says. “After all, it is easier to prevent a tumor from growing than trying to shrink a large tumor that already exists.”