Published Aug 25, 2021
Cholesterol plays a central role in how breast cancer cells spread throughout the body, according to new research from the Duke Cancer Institute.
There is significant evidence that having high cholesterol increases the risk of developing breast cancer, and can make patients more vulnerable to other forms of the disease, but the study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications looks a step further, analyzing the way high cholesterol aids the spread of cancer cells throughout the body.
The Mayo Clinic describes cholesterol as “a waxy substance” found in the blood. Cholesterol is necessary for the growth of healthy cells, but chronically high cholesterol levels can lead to increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
Too much cholesterol causes fatty deposits to form in blood vessels. As these deposits expand, they obstruct blood flowing through arteries. When a deposit breaks, it can create a clot. These blood clots can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
High cholesterol does not typically produce any identifiable symptoms–only a blood test can determine cholesterol levels. The good news is that cholesterol levels are significantly impacted by behavior and lifestyle choices. Though some people may require medication, many can manage their cholesterol levels by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
Researchers at the Duke Canter Institute have pinpointed the way that cancer cells use cholesterol to develop a tolerance to stress that allows them to metastasize (spread).
“When a cancer cell is in a primary tumor, it’s nice and comfortable. It’s growing in a nice environment and has plenty of nutrition,” senior author Donald P. McDonnell told SurvivorNet. “But when they metastasize, they basically have to go as single cells through the bloodstream in nutrient deprived conditions. It’s just a rough ride. And when they’re under stress like that, 99.999% cancer cells don’t make the journey.” In order for some cells to survive through this stress, they have to develop a resistance to it. Cholesterol, the study found, is an essential part of how cancer cells build this strength.
Using cancer cell lines (cancer cells that divide and grow under controlled conditions in a lab) and mice, the research team determined that, under stress, cancer cells gobble up cholesterol. Consuming cholesterol is a response to stress, but it also puts cells under more stress.
“Cancer cells need cholesterol in order to grow. They need it for their membranes and things like that. And in fact, they need a lot of it. And when they take in cholesterol, that puts them under stress. They’re getting something they need, but that puts them under a lot of stress,” said McDonnell. The process kills most cancer cells, but the few that don’t die instead develop a tolerance to stress through the process of consuming cholesterol. This tolerance allows the cancer cells to move from the original tumor into new parts of the body.
When asked about the most important takeaways from the study, McDonnell said, “To be honest, the most practical thing is: take your statin.” Statins are drugs that help lower cholesterol, and McDonnell believes that all adults should be taking a statin. “I would challenge anyone to find a safer medicine than a statin,” he said. When it comes to cholesterol levels, he said, “The lower the better.”
The CDC recommends five lifestyle choices that can help prevent high cholesterol.