Fat Cells are Like Jet Fuel to Cancer

Ovarian cancer spreads through omentum

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Ovarian cancer cells thrive on a high-fat diet. These crazies love to feed off the fat cells and when they do, the results can be swift and deadly.

"Stay lean to fight off cancer."

Researchers have discovered that cells in the fatty tissues of the abdomen provide just the right nutrients to help ovarian cancer spread like wildfire.

The large pad of fatty tissue that starts at the stomach and covers the intestines is known as the omentum. In the vast majority of cases (80 percent), by the time ovarian cancer is even diagnosed, it has already spread to the omentum. This cancer tends to spread within the abdomen rather than metasticize in distant organs.

One of the study authors, Ernst Lengyel, M.D., Ph.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at  the University of Chicago, says these cells  "contain the biological equivalent of jet fuel. They feed the cancer cells, enabling them to multiply rapidly."

In a series of experiments, researchers injected ovarian cancer cells into the abdomens of healthy mice. Those cells reached the omentum within 20 minutes!

First author Kristin Nieman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Lengyel's lab, and colleagues found that protein in the omentum attracts the cancer cells, and it's possible to interrupt the signals by which the communicate.

Once the tumor cells arrive in the omentum they start to gorge on the food this fatty tissue provides. They reprogram their metabolism to live off this fuel  in such a way that ovarian cancer can quickly take over the omentum and turn the area into solid sea of cancer cells.

The authors say this behavior may be seen in other cancers that develop in areas rich with fat cells such as the breast, colon and stomach.

Researchers believe that a protein that serves as a fat carrier - FABP4 - may be key to this process. Blocking this protein blocked cancer cell growth.

Dr. Lengyel tells dailyRx in an email, "We now understand better how ovarian cancer spreads and why it is different from other cancers. Our findings could be the first step towards improved treatments that take novel approaches to targeting cancer."

This research was published online October 30, 2011 in Nature Medicine.


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Review Date: 
November 1, 2011
Last Updated:
November 1, 2011