Young Kiwi researcher proves role of fatty tissue in breast cancer spread

February 4, 2014 - World Cancer Day

A young Kiwi researcher has impressed her seniors and the wider medical profession with an award-winning summer project that could have worldwide impact.

Hannah Palmer, 22, spent her summer studying how 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. Hannah worked on a summer studentship in the Mackenzie Cancer Research Group (MCRG) of the University of Otago, Christchurch, under the supervision of Dr Elisabeth Phillips. Her studentship was funded by the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation.

While obesity has long been known to pose an increased risk for breast cancer and to lead to a worse prognosis for women suffering the disease, very few published studies have investigated the role of fatty tissue surrounding tumours. Hannah’s summer study proved that proteins secreted by fatty tissue are contributing factors to the increased invasive potential of a tumour. This ground-breaking research won Hannah the prize for best overall project (scientific content and presentation). 

The NZBCF-sponsored research is timely, as scientists battle what seems like a cancer epidemic, and breast cancer remains the number one cancer for New Zealand women – numbers diagnosed here topped 3000 for the first time in 2012. Today, World Cancer Day 2014, a new report from the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) shows that cancer is the biggest cause of mortality worldwide, with an estimated 8.2 million deaths in 2012.[i]  – Cancer cases are forecast to rise by 75% over the next two decades.

Hannah worked incredibly hard over her time here and we are in the process of incorporating the findings from this project into a paper for publication,” said her supervisor Dr Elisabeth Phillips. “There’s been considerable interest regarding the work – 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’s not just the university that recognises the quality of Hannah’s work.

“Hannah has produced an outstanding piece of work that could hold its own anywhere in the world,” said Anna Bashford, oncologist and medical adviser to the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation, which funded Hannah’s summer studentship. “I don’t doubt that other researchers will use her discovery as the basis of new studies into how to prevent breast cancers metastasising (spreading).”


How the study worked:

Proteins secreted by adipocytes (fatty tissue cells) are contributing factors to the increased invasive potential of a tumour. Hannah’s work focused on one particular protein, called CH3L1, which her laboratory tests showed were produced in cancer-associated fatty breast tissue at levels four times higher than in non-cancer-associated tissue. CH3L1 is thought to play a role in inflammation and has been reported to increase cancer cell survival.

Hannah’s next step was to treat several different types of breast cancer cells with the CH3L1 protein. Subsequent tests showed that CH3L1 increased the proliferation and survival of the cancer cell lines. Further tests then showed that CH3L1 increased the invasive properties of the tumour cells and reduced the time it took for them to migrate into normal cells, compared with the time taken for non-CH3L1-exposed cells to migrate.