New insights uncovered: Obesity’s effects on breast cancer

Exploring how obesity influences breast cancer: Research findings


Obesity worsens breast cancer, but we don’t fully understand why. To learn more, Yale and Cornell University researchers from Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science have received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They’ll use a combination of lab tests and computer simulations.

In most cases, breast cancer starts in the milk ducts. When it escapes from there, it enters fatty tissue called adipose tissue, made up of fat cells called adipocytes. How many cancer cells get into this fatty tissue and whether they reach the blood vessels in the fatty tissue are essential factors determining how dangerous the cancer becomes.

O’Hern, professor of mechanical engineering materials science, physics, and applied physics, said, “If the cancer cells make it into a blood vessel, then there’s the chance of metastasis, which yields a bad prognosis for the patient.”

Obesity plays a significant role in making cancer cells spread. Most studies look at how cancer works inside the body, but researchers like O’Hern and Horsley are looking at how the fat tissue itself can affect cancer.

The fatty tissue around the mammary ducts can change in size, but we don’t know much about how the fat cells work. According to Horsley, the fat cells (called adipocytes) are much bigger than cancer cells. In obesity, they get even more significant. This could be a critical factor in how cancer spreads.

Image showing Computer simulations of lipolysis during tumor cell invasion into adipose tissue.
Computer simulations of lipolysis during tumor cell invasion into adipose tissue. Credit : Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science.

O’Hern said, “So if the adipocytes swell and pack tightly during obesity, it would seem that cancer cells would not be able to move through the densely packed adipose tissue.”

The researchers have found that in mice with high obesity, cancer cells make fat cells (adipocytes) lose their fat, causing them to shrink. This shrinkage creates paths for cancer cells to move into the fatty tissue.

This process, called lipolysis, can make cancer cells grow faster. However, it also makes the nearby tissue smaller, giving cancer cells new places to invade and spread. The research team is made up of experts in various fields, and their goal is to understand how the physical properties of fatty tissue in higher weight people contribute to cancer invasion. This knowledge could help develop better treatments for breast cancer.

This groundbreaking research into the impact of obesity on breast cancer holds great promise for unraveling the complex interplay between adipose tissue and cancer cells. By identifying the mechanisms through which obesity influences breast cancer progression, this study may pave the way for developing more effective treatments and interventions for breast cancer patients, particularly those affected by obesity.


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