Cholesterol Molecule Influences Growth of ER+ Cancers

In a large portion of human breast cancers, cancer growth is closely linked to the amount of estrogen in the body. For all intents and purposes, estrogen fuels growth in these Estrogen Receptor Positive (ER+) Cancers. However, a group of researchers recently discovered that another common molecule may play a similar role. When the body breaks down cholesterol, one of its first by-products is a molecule called 27-HC. Studying mice and cancerous tissues, researchers demonstrated that 27-HC promotes growth in ER+ cancers. Besides estrogen, 27-HC is the first known molecule to stimulate such growth.

Interpretations and Implications

Research has shown a link between obesity and breast cancer, especially in post-menopausal women for many years. There is also evidence that high cholesterol levels are linked to an increased risk for certain cancers. Among breast cancer patients, specific classes of medication are sometimes less effective among overweight or obese women because of how they interact. All of these findings suggest an important relationship between a woman’s weight, cholesterol levels, and breast cancer. However, it is unclear why this relationship exists, or whether confounding factors other than weight and cholesterol are the cause.

Recent research by Wu and colleagues provide insights into what may be going on. If a by-product of cholesterol is responsible for the growth of certain cancer cells, it has implications for the development of therapies, the advice clinicians provide to patients, and how women think about and understand their bodies with respect to weight, diet, and medical conditions. However, there is one caution to the findings – the evidence rests on results from animal models and laboratory cell lines. More research is needed, including findings among patients, to fully understand the implications of such a discovery.

Source: Wu Q et al. 2013. “27-Hydroxycholesterol Promotes Cell-Autonomous, ER-Positive Breast Cancer Growth,” Cell Reports [14;5(3):637-4].


jess Werder headshot BWJessica Werder, Health Researcher, Community Outreach Manager

Jess Werder earned an M.P.H. from State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, and is Community Outreach Manager for the Fairfax County Health Department in Virginia. With the Peace Corps in Nicaragua from 2008-2010, she was a Community Health Promoter whose responsibility was to design, implement and evaluate department-wide community health programs, then, on her return to the States, continued this work with the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP). She was a graduate fellow at the SUNY Center for Women in Government and a Lecturer in the Department of Women’s Studies at U Albany. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and two young children. Jess currently researches and writes the “Recent Research” column for Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer! (CRAAB!), a community-based non-profit created in 1997 by a diverse group of caregivers, health practitioners, educators, advocates and breast cancer survivor. BCC is pleased to republish some of these insightful analyses in our own Research Briefs.


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