Scientists in Ireland have discovered a major clue as to why there is a link between obesity and cancer.
Their findings could pave the way for more research into new treatments for people who suffer with cancer.
The research, which has been published in the science journal Nature Immunology helps to explain why excess fat can cause the body’s immune surveillance systems to ‘stutter and fail’.
The human body produces Natural Killer cells, which lead the fight against cancer cells that develop and spread.
If the person is obese or overweight the Natural Killer cells become ‘fat-clogged’ and cease to be effective.
The team’s research shows that the fat-clogged Natural Killer cells could be molecularly re-programmed in a way that would see them spring back into action.
Obesity places a huge health and economic burden on society as it is linked to many illnesses that could be preventable if the person was able to maintain a healthy weight.
Today, over one third of the world’s adult population is either overweight or obese. That is over 1.9 billion people.
Obesity is linked to several illnesses and diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and various infections.
It is also believed to be partially responsible to up to 50% of certain cancers.
Research conducted by Associate Professor in Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, Lydia Lynch could revolutionise the way scientists see obesity and its impact on immune surveillance.
Dr Lynch also conducts research at Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US.
Her team studied natural killer cells from both humans and mice. They discovered that Natural Killer cells become clogged up by excess fat in obese individuals.
The Natural Killer cells are still able to recognise cancer causing cells. However, the clogging up caused by excess fat prevents them from killing the tumour cells.
Dr Lynch’s team were able to pinpoint the specific metabolic step that caused fat-clogged Natural Killer cells to become ineffective.
This means there is a possibility that future research could lead to new ways of treating obese people with cancer in the future.
If scientists could find a way to re-programme Natural Killer cells that have become fat-clogged, they may be able to provide a metabolic jolt and restore their ability to kill the tumour cells.
Professor Lynch said: “Despite increased public awareness, the prevalence of obesity and related diseases continue. Therefore, there is increased urgency to understand the pathways whereby obesity causes cancer and leads to other diseases, and to develop new strategies to prevent their progression.
“Our results highlight immuno-metabolic pathways as a promising target to reverse immune defects in obesity, and suggest that metabolic reprogramming of Natural Killer cells may kick-start their anti-cancer activity and improve treatment outcomes.”