New Obesity-Cancer Risk Link Discovered by AgBioResearch Scientists

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A new link between body fat and colon cancer identified by MAES researchers underscores the need to fight obesity and could lead to new cancer treatment and prevention strategies.

The research is the first to show that higher levels of leptin, a hormone that regulates body energy, induces precancerous colon cells to produce more of a growth factor that can increase blood supply to early cancer cells and promote tumor growth and progression. Obese people have higher levels of leptin. The study was published in the April 30 issue of Carcinogenesis.

Jenifer Fenton“Adipose tissue, or fat, is recognized as a significant risk factor for diabetes and heart disease, but the role of adipose tissue in cancer risk is less understood,” said Jenifer Fenton, MAES food science and human nutrition researcher and lead author of the study. “Abdominal fat in particular seems to be associated with the greatest risk for cancer. As your waist-to-hip ratio increases, so does your risk for cancer, especially breast, colon and endometrial cancers.”

Julia BusikMAES physiology scientist Julia Busik and Fay Hansen-Smith, of Oakland University, also collaborated on the research.

Some 149,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer and 50,000 will die from it this year, according to the American Cancer Society. By 2006, more than a million people in the United States had been diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer according to a National Cancer Institute report.

The scientists focused on colon cancer because it affects both genders equally, giving the research broader reach and a larger impact on cancer prevention.

“Trying to address the problem when someone already has a late-stage tumor is not primary prevention,” Fenton explained. “Our goal is to understand the active signals and mechanisms involved so we can create opportunities to prevent or interrupt cancer progression early in the process.”

Fenton said that while weight loss is the ideal prevention strategy for reducing obesity as a risk factor for colon cancer, 95 percent of all people who lose weight will regain those pounds—and often more—within a year.

“So behavior modification as a prevention strategy is difficult and challenging,” she said. “For this reason, continuing research also will include the identification of dietary compounds that may prevent or reduce colon cancer risk associated with obesity in the absence of weight loss.”

The abstract of the study “Novel Mechanism for Obesity-induced Colon Cancer Progression” is available online.

Besides the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, the research also is supported by the National Cancer Institute.

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