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Eur J Cancer Prev. 2002 Apr;11(2):193-7.

Dietary sphingolipids in colorectal cancer prevention.

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Institute of General Physiology and Biological Chemistry, School of Pharmacy, University of Milan, Italy.


Sphingolipids are widespread membrane components that are found in all eukaryotic cells. They consist of a long chain sphingoid-base, usually sphingosine, which is acylated at the 2-amino position, forming a ceramide. All together, sphingolipids may represent the most structurally diverse category of lipids in nature. There is no known nutritional requirement for sphingolipids. Nonetheless, studies with experimental animals have shown that consumption of sphingolipids inhibits colon carcinogenesis, reduces serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and elevates high-density lipoproteins, which suggest that they are 'functional' components of food. In animal models (CF1 mice) sphingomyelin supplementation reduces the number of aberrant colonic crypt foci by approximately 70% and, with longer feeding, reduces the number of colonic adenocarcinomas. A possible mechanism of action of sphingolipids in suppressing colon carcinogenesis is that exogenously supplied sphingolipids bypass a sphingolipid signalling defect that is important in cancer (for example, a loss of cellular sphingomyelin turnover to produce ceramide and sphingosine). Indirect evidence suggests that sphingolipids can inhibit colon cancer in humans: sphingosine and ceramide induce apoptosis in a human adenocarcinoma cell line and feeding sphingolipids to Min mice reduces the number of colon tumours.

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