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Scientists from the IRB Barcelona, in collaboration with Universitat Rovira i Virgili and several Spanish hospitals (Hospital del Mar, Hospital Clínico de Valencia and IISS-Fundación Jiménez Díaz) have revealed for the first time that breast-cancer tumor cells need fat to spread.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, analyzed more than 500 clinical samples from patients with different types of breast tumors and showed that in 85% of cases there are high levels of the LIPG protein, an enzyme found in the cell membrane that attracts fat from outside. Researchers have shown in animal models and tumor cells that if this protein’s activity is inhibited, the tumor stops growing.

It was already known that cancer cells attract glucose from outside and reprogram it to produce more fat, but this is the first time it has been shown that tumor cells need to import fats from outside.

This discovery “could be the Achilles heel of breast cancer,” explains Roger Gomis, ICREA researcher and group leader at IRB Barcelona, “If a drug were found to block its activity, it could be used to develop more efficient chemotherapy treatments that are less toxic than those currently available.” Gomis is the lead researcher on the study along with Joan J. Guinovart, director of the IRB Barcelona and chair at the University of Barcelona, who says, “Because LIPG is a membrane protein, it is potentially easier to design a pharmacological agent to block its activity.”

Discovery of this new therapeutic target could mark a turning point in oncology treatment, as Felipe Slebe, first author on the paper, explains, “LIPG function does not appear to be indispensable for life, so its inhibition may have fewer side effects than other treatments.” Because according to data from the WHO, 1.38 million cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year and it is the most common cancer among women in Spain.

For now, however, it hasn’t been proven that people who are overweight are more susceptible to cancer, although this is another line of research currently underway. 


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