While high cholesterol levels have been associated with malignancy of breast cancer, the cause for the link wasn’t known, until now. A by-product of cholesterol metabolism that acts on specific immune cells facilitate the spread of cancer, shows study by a team at University of Illinois. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, identifies new potential drug targets that could inhibit the creation or actions of the dangerous cholesterol by-product, a molecule called 27HC.
‘While 27HC inhibitors might take time to hit markets, cancer patients at risk for high cholesterol might want to take good cholesterol lowering drugs like statins and talk to their doctors about it.’"Breast cancer impacts roughly 1 in 8 women. We've developed fairly good strategies for the initial treatment of the disease, but many women will experience metastatic breast cancer, when the breast cancer has spread to other organs, and at that point we really don't have effective therapies. We want to find what drives that process and whether we can target that with drugs," said Erik Nelson, a professor of molecular and integrative physiology who led the study.
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27HC: A dangerous cholesterol by-product
Nelson's group fed mice with breast cancer tumors a diet high in cholesterol. The researchers confirmed that high levels of cholesterol increased tumor growth and metastasis, and that mice treated with cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins had less metastasis. Then they went further, specifically inhibiting the enzyme that makes 27HC during cholesterol metabolism.
"By inhibiting the enzyme that makes 27HC, we found a suppressor effect on breast cancer metastasis. This suggests that a drug treatment targeting this enzyme could be an effective therapeutic," said Amy Baek, a postdoctoral researcher at Illinois and the first author of the paper.
The researchers also saw unusual activity among specific immune cells - certain types of neutrophils and T-cells - at metastatic sites high in 27HC.
See a video of Nelson describing the study on YouTube.
The researchers are working to further understand the pathway by which 27HC affects the immune cells. With clinical partners at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, the team is working to establish whether 27HC has the same pathway in human patients as in mice.
"We hope to develop small-molecule drugs to inhibit 27HC," Nelson said. "In the meantime, there are good cholesterol-lowering drugs available on the market: statins. Cancer patients at risk for high cholesterol might want to talk to their doctors about it."