Stress Granules Behind Increased Pancreatic Cancer Risk In Obese Individuals

March 2, 2023

Obesity is associated with a higher risk of many cancers, including pancreatic cancer. New studies have shown that obesity considerably increases the risk of this type of cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of merely 11%. It is particularly important to understand how obesity causes pancreatic cancer and to find effective pancreatic pain treatment options. Most people know that obesity considerably increases the risk of heart disease or diabetes. However, many do not realize that obesity is also associated with elevated cancer risk. Studies show that obesity increases the risk of about 13 types of cancers. Understanding the relationship between obesity and diabetes or obesity and heart disease is easier. However, researchers are still unsure about how obesity increases cancer risk. For decades, researchers thought that it was due to increased inflammation. However, in recent years, they have identified other ways in which obesity may increase cancer risk.

New studies show that obesity considerably increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. In addition, this type of cancer has a five-year survival rate of merely 11%. Thus, understanding how obesity causes pancreatic cancer is particularly important. In recent years, researchers have found that obesity is associated with a higher production of stress granules. Furthermore, it appears that a higher number of stress granules considerably increase pancreatic cancer risk. A recently published study in the journal Cancer Discovery is among the first studies to show the association between stress granules and pancreatic cancer1.

Stress granules are quite unusual structures that are still poorly understood by science. Thus, science is unsure of what they contain and their exact role in health and disease. Nonetheless, science knows that these granules are produced in larger numbers during periods of stress. For example, during metabolic stress caused by obesity. It appears that stress granules generally have a protective role in the body, and it prevents cells from self-destruction. Stress granules production is not specific to humans or not even specific to mammals. Studies suggest that even plants produce stress granules. Plants and animals produce these granules to protect cells from destruction.

However, researchers think that cancers have learned to use these stress granules in their favor. Cancer cells produce stress granules in large amounts to protect cancer cells from destruction. It prevents the body from initiating natural self-destruction mechanisms, which must have otherwise occurred in these atypical cells/cancer cells.

Researchers in the study used a mice model. They found that stress granules production was higher in obese mice and those with pancreatic cancer. They also found that by blocking the gene that regulated the production of stress granules, cancer growth could be reduced by half. Researchers say that obesity is widespread in many nations like the US. About one-third of all pancreatic cancers are obesity-related. Moreover, the number of people living with obesity and related cancers is increasing.

For the study, researchers used genetically modified mice with pancreatic cancer. They found that stress granules production was five to eight times higher in obese mice compared to lean mice. Furthermore, they found that this phenomenon promoted faster cancer growth in obese mice. However, when they removed this protective mechanism, it became relatively easier to kill cancer cells.

Researchers say that they were amazed to see the results. When they completely blocked the production of stress granules, cancer either stopped growing or grew at a much slower pace compared to mice with intact stress granule production. Further, researchers say that they also found significantly improved survivability in mice with blocked stress granules. Generally, mice with pancreatic cancer live for about 50-60 days. However, blocking stress granules increased their survivability significantly, and 40% even became cancer free after 300 days.

Researchers say that this shows that stress granules are not merely present in larger numbers in those living with certain cancers. In fact, it appears that stress granules actually drive cancer growth from the very beginning. This study not only found the mechanism underlying increased cancer risk in obesity, but it also opened doors for new kinds of therapeutic agents. Thus, there is now a need for a clinical trial in humans to see how well can blocking stress granules help.

By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP