Researchers Are Turning Breast Cancer Cells into Harmless Fat Cells, and It’s Partly Working

January 19, 2019 Updated: January 19, 2019

The miracles of modern medicine never cease to amaze, but one field of research is proposing a truly unique solution to the devastating issue of breast cancer: Turn breast cancer cells into fat cells.

Researchers have used mice to demonstrate the success of this controversial experiment by exploiting a loophole in the very makeup of cancer cells themselves. Research is not conclusive yet, but first results look promising.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst women worldwide (©Shutterstock | Sebastian Kaulitzki)

Think about what happens when you cut your finger: The skin is broken and epithelium cells (located on the outside of the skin) are damaged. They become more “fluid,” and their properties allow them to reform into whatever cells the body needs in order to heal.

This movement from fluidity to reformation is called “epithelial-mesenchymal transition,” or simply EMT. Cancer typically uses both EMT and its opposite, MET (mesenchymal‐to‐epithelial transition), to spread cancerous cells throughout the body.

It’s possible to stop the spreading of cancer cells

Researchers implanted mice with a particularly aggressive form of human breast cancer and then treated them with two different drugs: one for diabetes, one for cancer.

The effect of this dual-attack drug combination halted the normal spreading of the cancer cells; when the cells attempted to use their normal EMT and MET pathways, instead of spreading, they changed from cancer into fat cells. Or, speaking scientifically, “adipogenesis” occurred.

The results are hugely encouraging. In a human patient, a combined therapy using the same diabetes- and cancer-treating drugs should “specifically target cancer cells with increased plasticity and induce their adipogenesis,” so say the research team in their report.

Prof. Dr. Gerhard M. Christofori of the research team in Basel (©Universität Basel)

The team were careful to note that not every cancer cell changed into a fat cell; however, those that did change did not change back.

Gerhard Christofori, biochemist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, wrote in the same report: “As far as we can tell … the cancer cells-turned-fat cells remain fat cells, and do not revert back to breast cancer cells.”

A 3D illustration of fat cells in the human body (©Shutterstock | Spectral-Design)

How is this possible? The cancer-treating drug given to patients increases the transition speed of cancer cells into stem cells, and then increases the conversion of those same stem cells into fat cells.

The diabetes-treating drug proved to be less instrumental, but in combination with the cancer drug, it helped.

The cancer cells (colored green) and normal fat cells (colored red) show in the picture below. The cancer-turned-fat cells are colored brown to indicate the merging of the cells.

The reality of turning cancer into fat

Both drugs used in the research experiment are already FDA-approved, which should fast-track the treatment into clinical trials for human subjects. The fact that the initial tests on mice used human cancer cells and were successful is promising.

Could this unusual approach to eradicating breast cancer be used in conjunction with chemotherapy for even better results? And could it be used to treat other types of cancers in the future?

Could this method be used to treat other types of cancers? (©Shutterstock | Kjpargeter)

Gerhard Christofori told the Press Association that yes, it could, in both instances:

“This innovative therapeutic approach could be used in combination with conventional chemotherapy to suppress both primary tumor growth and the formation of deadly metastases … Since we have used FDA-approved drugs to study the preclinical effect of the treatment, a clinical translation may be possible.”

This research has the medical community on the edges of their seats and could revolutionize the future of cancer treatment.

Have you been affected by cancer? What do you think of this pioneering approach? Share your thoughts and this inspiring news article!