Breast cancer link could have world impact

KATIE KENNY
Last updated 05:00 04/02/2014

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A young Kiwi researcher has discovered a link between fatty tissue and breast cancer that could have a worldwide impact, The New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation says.

Hannah Palmer, 22, spent her summer studying how a protein in fatty tissue can make breast tumour cells more invasive, leading to increased metastasis (the spread of cancer beyond the breast) and, ultimately, more cancer deaths.

The study shows that proteins secreted by fatty tissue promote migration of breast cancer cells, meaning that obesity or excess fatty tissue not only increases incidence of cancer occurring but is also associated with a worse prognosis in those already suffering with cancer. 

While obesity has long been associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, very few published studies have investigated the role of fatty tissue surrounding the tumours. 

The Breast Cancer Foundation, which funded the study, says Palmer’s study proves fat does play a role in breast cancer. 

‘‘Hannah has produced an outstanding piece of work that could hold its own anywhere in the world," said Anna Bashford, oncologist and foundation medical adviser said.

Palmer’s supervisor at the Mackenzie Cancer Research Group at the University of Otago, Dr Elisabeth Phillips, says there has been “considerable interest” in the research. 

“It’s a worthwhile and exciting pilot study and we would like to investigate our findings further to examine what the adipocytes (fatty tissue cells) located near tumours are doing to promote breast cancer cells to become more invasive and metastatic.” 

It is believed that between seven and 15 per cent of breast cancer cases in developed countries are caused by obesity, according to UK research published in the world leading general medical journal, the Lancet, in 2011. 

More than 100 studies show that postmenopausal women who are overweight or obese have higher breast cancer risks. 

Breast cancer is the number one cancer affecting New Zealand women. While 86 per cent of breast cancer patients are still alive five years after diagnosis, more than 600 New Zealand women die of it each year.

The provisional breast cancer registration (incidence) rate per 100,000 NZ women in 2012 was 96.2, up from 92.7 in 2011.

Palmer’s studentship was funded by the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.


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