Earlier research has found a connection between advanced prostate cancer and high cholesterol, but the reason for the connection has not been clear. Recently, researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute have identified a process that cancer cells use to hoard cholesterol and fuel growth.
The findings were published as an abstract online in the journal Cancer Research in February. “Prostate cancer cells, as well as some other solid tumors, have been shown to contain higher cholesterol levels than normal cells,” said senior author Donald McDonnell, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke. “All cells need cholesterol to grow, and too much of it can stimulate uncontrolled growth.”
Specifically, the research team found that prostate cancer cells were bypassing the cellular “control switch” that regulated the levels of cholesterol in prostate tumors. They also found that the tumors were expressing significantly lower amounts of the gene CYP27A1, which is involved in controlling the level of cholesterol within cells. Men with aggressive prostate tumors particularly had lower expression of the gene. When this gene became less active, the cholesterol fat builds up in the tumor cells, giving the cancer cells a growth advantage over normal, non-cancerous cells.
The next step for the research will be to determine how to return the cellular activity back to normal, from using statins that block cholesterol to finding ways to induce cells to eject the excess cholesterol.