Clue to spread of ovarian cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

Laboratory-based research by US scientists has given a clue to the role that a pad of fat cells inside the abdomen, called the omentum, plays in fuelling the spread of ovarian cancer.

Researchers from the University of Chicago believe the fat cells that make up the omentum provide nutrients which promote the growth and spread of ovarian cancer, the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the UK.

This fatty tissue, which extends from the stomach and covers the intestines, acts as a "launching pad" for the cancer to spread, according to the report published online in the journal Nature Medicine.

By the time ovarian cancer is diagnosed in 80 per cent of women it has spread to the omentum.

Study author Dr Ernst Lengyel said: "This fatty tissue, which is extraordinarily rich in energy-dense lipids, acts as a launching pad and energy source".

"The cells that make up the omentum contain the biological equivalent of jet fuel. They feed the cancer cells, enabling them to multiply rapidly. Gaining a better understanding of this process could help us learn how to disrupt it."

The Chicago team found that ovarian cancer cells injected into the abdomen of healthy mice found their way to the omentum within 20 minutes - and protein signals emitted by the omentum can attract the tumour cells. This attraction was at least halved by inhibitors which disturbed these signals.

Ovarian cancer can rapidly convert the entire omentum into a solid mass of cancer cells, a mechanism which may not be limited to ovarian cancer cells, the authors noted. Fat metabolism may also contribute to cancer development in other environments where fat cells are abundant, such as breast cancer.

They said a protein known as fatty acid binding protein (FABP4), who's role appears to be to carry fat around within cells, may be crucial to this process and could be a target for treatment.

Dr Kat Arney, science information manager at Cancer Research UK said: Ovarian cancer can be difficult to treat because the disease is often only diagnosed once it has spread.

"These are important results because they suggest that fat cells in the abdomen can fuel the spread of ovarian cancer, and point towards potential targets for the development of new treatments for the disease.

"But at the moment these are still early experiments using mice and cells grown in the lab, so there's still a lot of work to be done to turn this knowledge into a treatment that could help women with ovarian cancer."

Copyright Press Association 2011

References

  • Nieman, K. et al. (2011) Adipocytes promote ovarian cancer metastasis and provide energy for rapid tumor growth Nature Medicine DOI: 10.1038/nm.2492