For the first time, researchers have uncovered one of the mechanisms behind cancer metastasis, the process by which cancer cells can spread throughout the body. Scientists at the University of Sydney have determined a high level of “bad” LDL cholesterol is one of the main contributing factors in this process.
Cancer’s ability to spread is what makes it so difficult to treat. Previous research has already established a link between elevated LDL cholesterol and certain kinds of cancer, such as colon, prostate and breast cancer. Research suggests that treating high cholesterol with medication could reduce your risk of developing cancer, or prevent the spread of cancer once it does develop.
What’s So Bad About LDL Cholesterol?
You’ve probably heard that there are “good” and “bad” kinds of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol — the “good” kind — slows the accumulation of arterial plaque and protects against heart disease and heart attacks. LDL cholesterol — the “bad” kind — can accumulate on the walls of your arteries, causing them to become too stiff and narrow, a condition called atherosclerosis. Clots can easily block stiffened, narrowed arteries, leading to a deadly heart attack or stroke.
It’s believed that HDL cholesterol helps remove excess LDL cholesterol from the blood, taking it back to the liver where it can be excreted from the body. You want your HDL cholesterol level to be high (40 to 50 mg/dL) and your LDL cholesterol to be low (below 100 mg/dL).
High Cholesterol Linked to Cancer
Multiple studies have established a link between high cholesterol and cancer. Breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer have all been linked to elevated cholesterol. High cholesterol is often linked to overweight and obesity. Fat cells produce hormones, like estrogen, and some experts believe that those hormones are responsible for the development of cancer. A study from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that cholesterol can build up inside cells, interfering with the normal process of cell death and leading to the activation of the cancer gene. However, the recent research from the University of Sydney sheds new light on the mechanism by which LDL cholesterol in the blood contributes to the growth of cancer cells.
Elevated LDL Cholesterol Linked to Cancer Metastasis
The study, which was published in the journal Cell Reports, found that LDL cholesterol acts upon the part of the cell that regulates cell migration, which explains how cancer cells manage to spread throughout the body. According to the study’s senior author, Associate Professor Thomas Grewal from the University’s Faculty of Pharmacy, “Most of the cells in our bodies stick to neighboring cells through the help of ‘Velcro-like’ molecules on their surface known as integrins. Unfortunately, integrins also help cancer cells that have broken away from a cancerous tumor to take root elsewhere in the body.”
The researchers found that elevated LDL cholesterol encourages tiny packets of integrins to migrate outside of cancer cells, which in turn enables cancer cells to spread throughout the body. Conversely, the researchers also found that elevated HDL or “good” cholesterol prevents the spread of integrins outside of cancer cells, which can protect against the spread of cancer.
These findings may help explain why cancer cells absorb more LDL cholesterol than healthy cells — they’re taking up the lipids in order to facilitate their own spread. The researchers believe that treating high cholesterol in cancer patients could significantly reduce the risk of metastasis. They also believe that keeping cholesterol within healthy limits is essential for cancer prevention. These findings could lead to the development of new cancer treatments that stop the spread of cancer cells by blocking their ability to take up LDL cholesterol.
Manage Your Cholesterol to Prevent Cancer
While further research into the link between high cholesterol and cancer is needed, experts agree that managing your cholesterol is an important first step toward protecting yourself from cancer. Genetics play a role in high cholesterol for many people, but you can still take steps to keep your cholesterol within the healthy range.
It’s critical to take your cholesterol medication if your doctor recommends it. You can also keep your cholesterol under control by eating foods low in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. You should eat between 250 and 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day and no more than 16 grams of saturated fat per day. Fried foods, dairy products, eggs and red meat are high in cholesterol and saturated fat; you should limit your consumption of these items or choose low-fat alternatives.
Eating a diet high in fiber can also help control your blood cholesterol. Fiber removes cholesterol from your blood and can lower your LDL level by up to 10 percent. If you’re overweight or obese, losing as little as 10 percent of your body weight can reverse or lower your risk of high cholesterol.
Numerous studies have established a link between high cholesterol and certain types of cancer. Now, Australian researchers have pinpointed the mechanism by which LDL cholesterol helps cancer spread. These findings mean that cholesterol medication could soon find a place in cancer treatment; they could even lead to revolutionary drugs to stop the spread of cancer.