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Q&A with Natascia Marino, PhD


Obesity has long been known as a risk factor for developing many diseases, including cancer. For obese women, this means an increased risk for developing breast cancer, although the reason for this increased risk has not been substantiated.

A new study published in the journal Cancer Research provides a better understanding of the mechanisms at work with obesity to increase this risk. The study used blood samples from the Komen Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Cancer Center, the only known biorepository that collects, stores and provides samples for research internationally of healthy breast tissue taken from volunteer female donors. Since the bank was formed in 2007, more than 5,300 women have contributed samples of blood and breast tissue to aid in discoveries leading to a cure for the disease. Biological samples are distributed internationally and have played a part in 143 research projects resulting in 46 scientific publications. Natascia Marino, PhD, and Anna Maria Storniolo, MD (executive director of the tissue bank) were among the study’s co-authors.

We asked Dr. Marino, a research scientist at the Komen Tissue Bank, more about this study.

Q: What is noteworthy about this recent Cancer Research publication?

A:  This study provides a better understanding of why obesity can contribute to the development of breast cancer. The research shows that free fatty acids interact in an adverse way with estrogen-positive cancer cells.

Q: What happens when the estrogen-positive cancer cells come in contact with free fatty acids?

A: In our study we found that, when taken up by estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer cells, fatty acids activated pathways that increased tumor cell growth, survival and proliferation.

Q: Does the amount of free fatty acid in the blood have a greater effect on the cancer cells or the proliferation of the cells?

A: It is not just a matter of the amount but also of the type of fatty acid in the blood. Women who developed breast cancer – and women who were overweight or obese – had significantly higher blood concentrations of five free fatty acids and glycerol, which are released as byproducts when fat tissue breaks down triglycerides.

Q: Can you tell us more about the samples from the Komen Tissue Bank that were used?

A: We used two types of samples from the tissue bank: Milk-producing cells and plasma samples.

Q: What are free fatty acids and where do they come from?

A: There are several kinds of fatty acids, which are molecules that come from animal and vegetable fats and oils. They are used in everything from cooking oils to soaps and cosmetics. Free fatty acids are the byproducts of fat in adipose tissue, which is the scientific name for what many call body fat.

Q: What can be done to reduce the amount of free fatty acids in your blood?

A: Weight loss and eating more fruits and vegetables can reduce the amount of free fatty acids in the blood. A positive note from this study is that significant weight loss resulted in a significant decrease in the amount of fatty acids in the blood of the women enrolled in this clinical study.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Michael Schug

Michael Schug, an award-winning communicator, is the communications manager at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center. In this role, he promotes the impactful research generated by the center’s nearly 250 scientists and physician-scientists to both external and internal audiences.