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Study by Geisel group details process enzyme plays in cancer

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2019 9:48:50 PM
Modified: 12/22/2019 9:48:48 PM

HANOVER — While scientists know that fatty diets and obesity can increase the risk of cancer and increase the aggressiveness of an established cancer, they don’t know how.

Research by Geisel School of Medicine active emeritus professor Dr. William Kinlaw III’s team previously found that an enzyme called Lipoprotein Lipase, or LPL, was present when cancer cells consumed fats from the bloodstream, but didn’t know how it worked.

Now in a new study published this month in the Journal of Lipid Research, Kinlaw’s group at Geisel and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center describes that process.

Though the study’s lead author Leslie Lupien, who earned her doctorate in cancer biology from Dartmouth College this year, began with the understanding that LPL under normal conditions breaks down fat particles to make fatty acids available for muscles to use, her findings led her in a new direction.

“We were surprised to find out that it may be acting in a different way,” she said.

Using cell models in the lab, the team found that LPL docks on the surface of breast cancer cells, enabling them to absorb whole fat particles from the bloodstream.

Using a special microscope, researchers saw the cells were “just packed with fat,” Kinlaw said.

It was “kind of disgusting,” he said.

The finding is important because cancer cells rely on fat to create new cells, Kinlaw said. Sometimes cancer cells make fat themselves using sugar, but this new study shows that they also may absorb it from the bloodstream directly, requiring less energy.

Cancer cells are “going to get the fat one way or the other,” Kinlaw said.

The discovery could point to a new approach in combating cancer. While a lot of work has focused on creating therapies to prevent cells from making fat themselves, this study now suggests therapies also should focus on preventing cancer cells from absorbing dietary fat.

Mikhail Kolonin, the director of the Center for Metabolic & Degenerative Diseases at McGovern Medical School in Houston, said he found it “interesting that they found that whole (fat) particle can be taken up by cancer cells.”

But in order to be convinced that this process is happening in humans, he would like to see studies on animal models.

“I’m not sure whether it really happens in patients,” he said.

The Dartmouth researchers plan to publish studies looking at dietary fat and cancer in mice soon, Kinlaw and Lupien said.

Pinning down how cancer cells get the fat they need to replicate is important, Kolonin said, because patients need to know what effect their diet may have on their cancer risk or progression of their existing disease.

In an effort to reduce their consumption of carbohydrates and sugar — which cancer cells may use to make fat — some patients have turned to the high-fat, adequate-protein ketogenic diet, Kolonin said.

But if the Geisel researchers’ findings are borne out in future studies, “reducing fatty acids in diet is something to consider,” he said.

Then the question left for researchers is between carbohydrates and fat: “What’s the worse of the two evils?” Kolonin said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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