Trinity scientists shed new light on the link between obesity and cancer

The immune system fails in the presence of excess fat, reducing its ability to fight cancer

Trinity scientists have made a major discovery that confirms why the body’s immune surveillance systems stutter and fail in the presence of excess fat, in a study recently published in journal Nature Immunology.

The researchers studied natural killer cells from humans and mice models to discover that the molecular machinery of cancer-fighting natural killer cells is hindered by excess fat in obese individuals. This “clogging up” prevents the cells from killing tumour cells, although they can recognise them.

Further investigation allowed the team to pinpoint the specific metabolic step that was suppressed in fat-clogged Natural Killer cells. They then reprogrammed the cells to restore their function by providing them with a metabolic jolt. Their work offers promise for the development of new cancer treatment strategies.

The research was led by Trinity immunology professor Lydia Lynch. Commenting on the significance of the study, she said: “Despite increased public awareness, the prevalence of obesity and related diseases continue. Therefore, there is increased urgency to understand the pathways whereby obesity causes cancer and leads to other diseases, and to develop new strategies to prevent their progression.”

“Our results highlight immuno-metabolic pathways as a promising target to reverse immune defects in obesity, and suggest that metabolic reprogramming of Natural Killer cells may kick-start their anti-cancer activity and improve treatment outcomes,” she continued.

The study sheds new light on the impact of obesity on immune surveillance and its relevance to cancer. Little had been known about the subject despite the fact that over one-third of the world’s adult population are overweight and obese.

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is a former SciTech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Microbiology graduate.