To determine the mechanism by which the (n-3) fatty acids (FA)
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) decrease proliferation and induce apoptosis in MDA-MB-231 human breast cancer cells, we examined the effects of EPA and DHA on the lipid composition of lipid rafts as well as epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) raft localization and phosphorylation. (n-3) FA (a combination of EPA and DHA) inhibited (P < 0.05) the growth of MDA-MB-231 cells by 48-62% in the presence and absence, respectively, of linoleic acid (LA). More EPA and DHA were incorporated into lipid rafts isolated from MDA-MB-231 cells after treatment with (n-3) FA compared with cells treated with LA (P < 0.05). EPA and DHA treatment decreased (P < 0.05) lipid raft sphingomyelin, cholesterol, and diacylglycerol content and, in the absence of LA, EPA and DHA increased (P <
0.05) raft ceramide levels. Furthermore, there was a marked decrease in EGFR levels in lipid rafts, accompanied by increases in the phosphorylation of both EGFR and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), in EPA+DHA-treated cells (P < 0.05). As sustained activation of the EGFR and p38 MAPK has been associated with apoptosis in human breast cancer cells, our results indicate that (n-3) FA modify the lipid composition of membrane rafts and alter EGFR signaling in a way that decreases the growth of breast tumors.