Cutting the risk of cancer

Surgical weight loss treatments reduce breast cancer growth in obese mice, but not as well as dietary interventions.

A painting titled ‘a glass lineage’ depicts cancer cells (blue circles) surrounded by immune cells. Image credit: Jarrett Burch (CC BY 4.0)

As the number of people classified as obese rises globally, so do obesity-related health risks. Studies show that people diagnosed with obesity have inflammation that contributes to tumor growth and their immune system is worse at detecting cancer cells. But weight loss is not currently used as a strategy for preventing or treating cancer.

Surgical procedures for weight loss, also known as ‘bariatric surgeries’, are becoming increasingly popular. Recent studies have shown that individuals who lose weight after these treatments have a reduced risk of developing tumors. But how bariatric surgery directly impacts cancer progression has not been well studied: does it slow tumor growth or boost the anti-tumor immune response?

To answer these questions, Sipe et al. compared breast tumor growth in groups of laboratory mice that were obese due to being fed a high fat diet. The first group of mice lost weight after undergoing a bariatric surgery in which part of their stomach was removed. The second lost the same amount of weight but after receiving a restricted diet, and the third underwent a fake surgery and did not lose any weight. The experiments found that surgical weight loss cuts breast cancer tumor growth in half compared with obese mice. But mice who lost the same amount of weight through dietary restrictions had even less tumor growth than surgically treated mice.

The surgically treated mice who lost weight had more inflammation than mice in the two other groups, and had increased amounts of proteins and cells that block the immune response to tumors. Giving the surgically treated mice a drug that enhances the immune system’s ability to detect and destroy cancer cells reduced inflammation and helped shrink the mice’s tumors. Finally, Sipe et al. identified 54 genes which were turned on or off after bariatric surgery in both mice and humans, 11 of which were linked with tumor size.

These findings provide crucial new information about how bariatric surgery can impact cancer progression. Future studies could potentially use the conserved genes identified by Sipe et al. to develop new ways to stimulate the anti-cancer benefits of weight loss without surgery.