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Blocking cholesterol storage ‘could stop growth of pancreatic tumours’

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Organoids of mouse pancreatic tumor cells are used as a model system to study tumor biology and treatments. (Credits: Tobiloba Oni / SWNS)

Blocking cholesterol storage could stop growth of cancerous tumours, according to a new study.

In a possible new strategy for treating the deadly disease, researchers were able to stop the cancer in its tracks by preventing cells from storing the waxy substance found in blood.

Scientists from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York wanted to discover why pancreatic cancer cells make abundant amounts of cholesterol and if they make more of it than they need to support their own growth.

Most cells only make as much cholesterol as they need, but the researchers found cancer in the pancreas thrives off the process that keeps creating these fatty cells.

Tobiloba Oni, a graduate student, said: ‘This is unusual, because the cholesterol pathway is one of the most regulated pathways in metabolism.’

Professor David Tuveson, The Cancer Centre Director and The Director of the Cancer Therapeutics Initiative who led the research, said: ‘Cancer cells in the pancreas seem to thrive off this hyperactive cholesterol synthesis. The team thinks this is probably because they are taking advantage of other molecules generated by the same pathway.

‘They’re able to keep the pathway running and maintain their supply thanks to an enzyme called sterol O-acyltransferase 1 (SOAT1), which converts free cholesterol to its stored form and which pancreatic cancer cells have in abundance’

Mouse pancreatic tumor expresses SOAT1. SOAT1 RNA is stained in red. Tumor cell nucleii are stained in blue. (Credits: Tobiloba Oni / SWNS)

When researchers eliminated the enzyme through genetic manipulation, cells were prevented from converting and storing their cholesterol. This process stalled tumour growth completely in experiments on mice.

Mr Obi said normal pancreas cells were able to function without the enzyme, so it makes the technique a promising target for tackling pancreatic cancer.

He said: ‘The hope is that researchers will be able to develop a drug that selectively blocks the enzyme, impairing cancer cells but leaving normal cells healthy.’

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

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