How Can Cancer’s Most Destructive Super Power – The Ability to Spread – Be Contained? The Answer May Be Tied To Your Cholesterol

Published Aug 25, 2021

Joe Kerwin

Cholesterol and Cancer Cells

  • A new study released by the Duke University Cancer Center explores the mechanism that enables cancer cells to proliferate and spread from the initial tumor to other parts of the body.
  • The study finds that cholesterol plays a central role in this process. Most cancer cells die under the stress of trying to metastasize, and they respond to this stress by consuming cholesterol.
  • The cancer cells that do not die are strengthened by this cholesterol, enabling them to push farther and spread to different parts of the body.

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.

Understanding Cholesterol

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.

Cancer and Cholesterol

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.

Implications For The Future of Breast Cancer Treatment

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.”

Managing Your Cholesterol

The CDC recommends five lifestyle choices that can help prevent high cholesterol.

  1. Eating healthy. Incorporating heart-healthy foods into your diet is one of the most important ways you can keep a healthy cholesterol level. This typically involves reducing saturated fats, eliminating trans fats, eating foods that contain omega-3 acids, and consuming more soluble fiber. The Mayo Clinic also encourages adding whey protein to your diet, as it is likely the cause for many of the health benefits of dairy.
  2. Maintaining a Healthy Weight. Extra body fat raises cholesterol levels by slowing down the natural process that removes cholesterol from your blood. Obesity also changes the way that the body uses cholesterol, and these factors together boost cholesterol in a way that increases the risk of strokes and heart disease.
  3. Exercising Regularly. Frequent physical activity is an important component because it lowers cholesterol levels and decreases blood pressure. The CDC advises adults to get at least two and a half hours of moderate exercise every week, and recommends an hour of physical activity daily for children and adolescents.
  4. Quitting Smoking. Smoking tobacco or other nicotine products harms your blood cells and accelerates the hardening of your arteries. This is another significant risk factor for heart disease.
  5. Limiting alcohol consumption. Alcohol can cause high cholesterol and an excess of triglycerides (a kind of fat) in the blood. The CDC recommends that adult men limit themselves to two drinks a day, and that women should not have more than one drink a day.

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Joe Kerwin is a writer and researcher at SurvivorNet, based in New York City. Read More