Reducing "bad cholesterol" may inhibit the growth of cancerous tumours, according to a recently published study by a University of Alberta doctor.  

The data suggests that tumours use lipids from lipoproteins as "building blocks," and tumours can prompt the liver to release those lipids, said Dr. Richard Lehner, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, who collaborated for two years with a team in Austria led by Dr. Gerald Hoefler.

Their study was published in Cell Reports on April 7.   

Gerald Hoefler

Dr. Gerald Hoefler worked in conjunction with Dr. Lehner with a team in Austria. (Medical University of Graz)

"The tumour asks the host, the animal or the person, 'I need more lipids so I can grow, so give me more cholesterol,' " said Lehner. 

"So the question was, what happens if we stopped production of the bad cholesterol?"

Several past studies have shown a link between obesity and cancer. Lehner used that as a jumping-off point for his research into the connection between very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), commonly known as "bad cholesterol," and tumour growth.

Lehner and Hoefler worked off the hypothesis that minimizing production of "bad cholesterol" would starve a tumour and reduce it's possibility to grow.

The data gathered from their pre-clinical experiments confirmed a connection between lipoproteins and tumour development.  

While Lehner said the discovery is exciting, he explained it would not work as an anti-tumour treatment but instead in conjunction with other medications. 

"The idea would be, one would slow the tumour growth, and therefore, one would give the patients more time to combat the tumour with specific drugs," said Lehner. 

The next step

John Mackey, the director of the clinical trials program at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, said the next step is clinical trials in humans.

Mackey said the trials already have a head start because they will use approved drugs and will have a large database of patient information to work from. 

John Mackey

John Mackey says that the next step for the study is clinical trials. (University of Alberta)

"The first thing we're planning on doing is going to that database and taking a look at the patients that happen to be on the medications that might be useful for this particular mechanism," Mackey said.

"We want to see if the people that were on them for cholesterol reasons did better than those who are not on those medications."

Further research will be done locally with anti-cholesterol drugs added to the medications of patients who volunteer for the trial.

Should the potential clinical trials be successful, it could make a significant difference for those afflicted by specific cancers, Lehner said.

"It could make a difference in lifespan. It could make a difference in lifestyle. But it's too early to say."