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Cholesterol gives cancer a free ride

13 May 2014

Cholesterol’s already badly tarnished image has just got a whole lot worse.

A team of researchers have found that the substance, long linked to heart problems and clogged arteries, also plays a major role in helping cancer spread through the body.

In a finding set to intensify the focus on links between elevated cholesterol levels and the incidence of cancer the researchers, led by Sydney University Associate Professor Thomas Grewal, found that low density lipoprotein (LDL) – often referred to as bad cholesterol – regulates the machinery that controls the migration of cells through the body.

Associate Professor Grewal said cells in the body typically stick to each other with the help of Velcro-like molecules on their surface known as integrins. Cancer cells typically have more of these integrins, which help cancer cells that have broken away from a tumour to take root elsewhere in the body.

“Our study identified that bad cholesterol controls the trafficking of tiny vessels which also contain there integrins, and this has huge effects on the ability of cancer cells to move and spread through the body,” he said.

“Our research found that having high amounts of bad cholesterol seemed to help the integrins in cancer cells to move and spread.

“In contrast, we found that high levels of good (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol keeps integrins inside cells, and may therefore protect against cancer cell spread.”

The discovery, published in the journal Cell Reports, may shed new light on cancer therapy.

Associate Professor Grewal told the Adelaide Advertiser that people with common cancers such as those of the breast, prostate, lung and liver, often had low levels of LDL cholesterol because it had been absorbed by the cancer cells to help them grow and spread.

“Our findings advance the theory that knowing how to manipulate and lower bad cholesterol could significantly help to reduce the ability of cancer cells to spread.

Associate Professor Grewal has been working on the link between cancer and cholesterol for the last 15 years in collaboration with Professor Carlos Enrich from the University of Barcelona, and the latest paper was the result of five years’ work involving researchers from the University of Sydney, the Garvan Institute, and from universities and research centres in Brisbane, Hamburg and Barcelona.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 13 May 2014