Uncovering how obesity causes cancer

 A team of 13 led by Dr Meritxell Huch

Austria, The Netherlands, UK and USA

 Biologists, physicists, geneticists, pathologists and clinicians

 5 years



Cancer Causes Grand Challenge

The challenge: Determine the mechanisms that cause cancer without known mutagenesis, such as obesity, in order to devise novel interventions.

We are delighted to learn that Cancer Research UK has shortlisted our project. By bringing together a team of clinicians and experts in organoid culture technology, mouse and human genetics and epigenetics, computational biology and genetic engineering, we propose to target the mechanisms by which fat accumulation leads to cancer predisposition, with special attention to liver, colon and breast tumours.

Dr Meritxell Huch, Principal Investigator


Research has shown that many types of cancer are more common in people who are overweight or obese, including liver cancer, breast cancer and bowel cancer. But it is not clear exactly how excess fat causes cancer. As obesity is linked to 13 different types of cancer, it’s crucial that we gain knowledge in this area.

Dr Meritxell Huch and her team of world-renowned experts from the UK, The Netherlands, France, Austria and the US will combine their specialist expertise to investigate what’s happening inside our cells when they are exposed to too much fat, and how that can lead to cancer. 

The Research

This ambitious and potentially game-changing project requires a multidisciplinary approach by some of the world’s brightest minds. Dr Huch’s team, led from the University of Cambridge, is an exceptional, international team made up of world-leading doctors and scientists, with expertise in cancer metabolism, cell biology, genetics, computational biology and mathematics.

Using advanced research techniques and technologies, the team will study liver, breast and bowel tissue from cancer patients of a healthy weight, and compare them to samples from patients who are overweight or obese. Delving deep inside the cells of the tissue, the team will analyse and compare the DNA and look for faults in the genes and other cell processes. The complexity of the data and the volume of samples they’ll analyse could give us more information than ever before. With this information, they hope to identify patterns in the genes that could explain how obesity increases the risk of cancer developing and progressing.

The team also plans to investigate how obesity affects fat metabolism – the essential biological process that turns fat into energy. Research has shown that metabolism is faulty in people who are overweight or obese, which could influence their risk of developing cancer. 


Obesity is increasing worldwide and, with it, obesity-associated cancer development is becoming a global health issue. While the link between obesity and cancer is certain, the details of how excess fat causes healthy cells to turn into cancer is poorly understood. This pioneering project is set to uncover crucial insights into what happens to cells that are exposed to excess fat, and how these changes increase the risk of cancer. Unveiling these processes is vital to accelerating our understanding of how to prevent, diagnose and treat obesity-associated cancer.

This impressive team of world-renowned experts have set themselves an incredibly ambitious project, which, if successful, will revolutionise our understanding of obesity-associated cancer. How does obesity lead to cancer risk?  Answers to these questions would go far to aid cancer prevention approaches that are grounded in science.


Professor Edward Harlow, Grand Challenge Advisory Panel

The Team


Dr Meritxell Huch

Grand Challenge Shortlisted Team Principal Investigator
Group Leader

Country: UK
Organisation: The Gurdon Institute/University of Cambridge
Discipline: Stem cells and tissue regeneration


Dr Eduard Batlle

Group Leader and ICREA Research Professor 

Country: Spain
Organisation: IRB Barcelona 
Discipline: Cancer biology   


Professor Hans Clevers

Professor of Molecular Genetics

Country: The Netherlands
Organisation: Hubrecht Institute​
Discipline: Molecular genetics


Professor Edwin Cuppen

Professor of Human Genetics

Country: The Netherlands
Organisation: UMC Utrecht
Discipline: Human genetics


Professor Stuart Forbes

Professor of Transplantation and Regenerative Medicine

Country: UK
Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Discipline: Regenerative medicine


Professor Oscar Franco

Professor of Preventative Medicine & Director of ErasmusAGE

Country: The Netherlands​
Organisation: ErasmusAGE (Erasmus MC)
Discipline: Preventative medicine


Professor Ernesto Guccione

Associate Professor of Cancer Biology

Country: USA
Organisation: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai​
Discipline: Cancer biology, epigenetics


Dr Jessica Kiefte-de Jong

Assistant Professor of Global Public Health 

Country: The Netherlands​
Organisation: Leiden University​
Discipline: Epidemiology, nutrition and preventative medicine 


Professor Tony Kouzarides

Professor of Cancer Biology

Country: UK
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Discipline: Cancer biology


Dr Bon-Kyoung Koo

Group Leader

Country: Austria
Organisation: Institute of Molecular Biotechnology
Discipline: Cell biology


Professor Jan Ijzermans

Professor of Medicine

Country: The Netherlands
Organisation: Erasmus University Medical Center
Discipline: Clinical medicine


Mr Kourosh Saeb-Parsy

Lecturer in Clinical Medicine and Consultant Transplant Surgeon

Country: UK
Organisation: University of Cambridge / Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust 
Discipline: Clinical medicine


Professor Benjamin Simons

Herchel Smith Professor of Physics

Country: UK
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Discipline: Physics, mathematical modeling


Dr Ruben van Boxtel

Group Leader

Country: The Netherlands
Organisation: The Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology
Discipline: Genetics, cell biology


Professor Luc van der Laan

Associate Professor of Experimental Transplantation and Intestinal Surgery

Country: The Netherlands
Organisation: Erasmus University Medical Center
Discipline: Gastroenterology, hepatology


Dr Joanne Verheij

Lecturer in Pathology

Country: The Netherlands
Organisation: Academic Medical Center, Amsterdam
Discipline: Pathology