Research performed at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology suggests that consuming a high-fat diet may elevate the risk of cancer development.
Previous studies have theorised that what we eat can potentially increase and even cause the development of cancer. An investigation pioneered by the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology has identified a direct link between a high-fat diet and levels of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a signalling molecule that occurs naturally in the body and is associated with inflammation and cancer development.
Anuj Yadav, a senior research associate and the study’s lead co-author, commented: “We are trying to understand how subtle changes in the tumour microenvironment affect cancer progression at the molecular level. Cancer is a very complicated disease.”
Yadav explained that cancer development is not just about a few tumour cells but instead the entire microenvironment of the tumour supporting the cells.
He said: “Inflammation can play a significant role in this environment. A certain inflammatory response comes from highly processed foods, which are high in calories and high in fat. We wanted to understand the links between food, inflammation, and tumours at a molecular level, so we had to develop advanced probes to be able to visualise these changes.”
Designing molecular probes
To understand the relationship between a high-fat diet and elevated nitric oxide levels at the molecular level, the team needed to design an extremely sensitive molecular probe to perform deep-tissue imaging.
A molecular probe is a group of atoms or molecules that are utilised to analyse the properties of adjacent molecules by examining the interactions between the probe and the structures of interest. However, molecular probes must be designed bespoke to the conditions of each experiment.
Jefferson Chan, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the study’s principal investigator, explained: “Our group specialises in making designer molecules, which allows us to look at molecular features that are invisible to the naked eye. We design these custom-made molecules to discover things that weren’t previously known.”
For their experiment, the scientists developed a molecular probe called BL660-NO, the first of its kind to be employed in bioluminescence imaging of nitric oxide in cancer.
Effects of a high-fat diet on cancer development
The researchers utilised the BL660-NO probe in a mice study to determine how a high-fat diet may be a driver of cancer. The team compared the tumorigenicity of breast cancer carrying mice on a high-fat diet, whose 60% of calories came from fat, with mice on a low-fat diet, whose calories consisted of 10% fat, by monitoring the nitric oxide levels of both groups.
Michael Lee, a student researcher in the Chan lab and a lead co-author of the study, commented: “As a result of the high-fat diet, we saw an increase in nitric oxide in the tumour microenvironment. The implication of this is that the tumour microenvironment is a very complex system, and we really need to understand it to understand how cancer progression works. A lot of factors can go into this from diet to exercise — external factors that we don’t really take into account that we should when we consider cancer treatments.”
Establishing an association between a high-fat diet, nitric oxide levels, and cancer development is a significant breakthrough and may help to devise novel methods for cancer diagnosis and treatment in the future.
Chan, who is also a faculty researcher at the Beckman Institute, concluded: “Without this technology, you wouldn’t see this missing molecular link. Now that we know that this is happening, how do we prevent it, and how do we improve the situation?”