Science, you could say, comes in two sorts. There’s the stuff we more or less understand – and there’s the rest. We’re pretty secure with the earth being round and orbiting the sun, the heart being a pump connected to a network of tubes that keeps us alive, DNA carrying the genetic code – and a few other things. But human beings are curious souls and we tend to be fascinated by what we don’t know and can’t see – why the Dance of the Seven Veils caught on, I guess.
Scientists are, of course, the extreme example – they spend their lives pursuing the unknown (and, as Fred Hoyle gloomily remarked, they’re always wrong and yet they always go on). But in this media era they pay a public price for their doggedness because they get asked the pressing questions of the moment. Is global warning going to finish us off soon, why is British sport generally so poor and – today’s teaser – does being fat make you more likely to get cancer?
A few facts go a long way
The major cancers have become familiar because the numbers afflicted are so staggering – but the one good thing is that the epidemiology can tell us something about the disease. Thus for cancers of the bowel, endometrium, kidney, oesophagus and pancreas and also for postmenopausal breast cancer there is clear evidence that being overweight or obese makes you more susceptible. In other words, if you compare large groups with those cancers to equally large numbers without, the disease groups contain significantly more people who are fat. We should add that the above list is conservative. A number of other cancers are almost certainly more common in those who are overweight (brain, thyroid, liver, ovary, prostate and stomach tumours as well as multiple myeloma, leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and malignant melanoma in men).
The usual measure is Body Mass Index (BMI) – your weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of your height (in metres). A BMI of 25 to 29.9 and you’re overweight; over 30 is obese. In England in 2009 just over 61% of adults and 28% of children (aged 2-10) were overweight or obese and of these, 23% of adults and 14% of children were obese. And every year these figures get bigger.
How big is the risk?
Impossible to say exactly – for one thing we don’t know how long you need to be exposed to the risk (i.e. being overweight) for cancer to develop but in 2010 just over 5% of the total of new cancer cases in the UK was due to excess weight. That’s another conservative estimate, but it means at least 17,000 out of 309,000 cases, with bowel and breast cancers being the major sites.
What’s going on?
Showing an association is a good start but the important thing is to find out which molecules make that link. For obesity and cancer detail remains obscure but broad outlines are emerging, summarised in the sketch. In obesity fat (adipose) cells increase in both number and size (so it’s a double problem: more cells – and the fat cells themselves are fatter). As this happens other cells are recruited to adipose tissue and, from this cellular cooperative, signalling proteins are released that have the potential to drive tumours. This picture is similar to that of the microenvironment of tumours themselves, where many types of cell infiltrate the new growth. Initially this inflammatory and immune response aims to kill the tumour but if it fails the balance of signalling shifts so that it actually helps the tumour grow. In addition to signals from fat cells themselves, obesity is usually associated with increased levels of circulating growth hormones (e.g., insulin) and of lipids, both of which may also promote tumour development.
Thus many signals with cancerous potential arise in obese individuals. In principle these could initiate tumour growth or they could accelerate it in cancers that have started to develop independently of obesity. So it is complicated – but at least as new signalling strands emerge they offer new targets for drug therapy.