Mice with intensive forms of breast cancer which would have seen them die within weeks were given low-asparagine diets or else were treated with drugs that blocked the absorption of the nutrient.
Asparagine is an amino acid - a building block of protein - and takes its name from asparagus.
Breast cancer patients could be encouraged to cut asparagus and other foods from their diets in the future to reduce the risk of the disease spreading, scientists say.
Researchers at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute found that blocking the production of asparagine with a drug called L-asparaginase, and putting the mice on a low-asparagine diet greatly reduced the breast cancer's ability to spread.
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"We first identified this change in a patient who had ER-positive breast cancer, received anti-estrogen therapy, had her breast cancer recur and eventually passed away from the disease", said senior author Adrian Lee, Ph.D., director of the Women's Cancer Research Center at MWRI and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and professor of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology at the University of Pittsburgh.
A cancerous cell must go through huge changes in order to spread - it must learn to break off the main tumour, survive in the bloodstream and thrive elsewhere in the body.
The study, reported in the journal Nature, was carried out on mice which had a highly developed breast cancer.
Researchers know that further study and trials are needed to understand this phenomenon more clearly.
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The findings also suggest this could have implications for other cancer types, including kidney, and head and neck.
Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, stated: "Interestlingly, the drug L-asparaginase is used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is dependent on asparagine". It's possible that in future, this drug could be re-purposed to help treat breast cancer patients.
It is found in the foodies' favourite asparagus, as well as poultry, seafood and many other foods.
According to Lee, genetic analysis will soon be the dominant field of ER-positive breast cancer research, eventually leading to improved treatments and patient outcomes.
"At the moment, there is no evidence that restricting certain foods can help fight cancer, so it's important for patients to speak to their doctor before making any changes to their diet while having treatment".
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