Obesity and Cancer Research, Finding Solutions that Fit

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I recently attended the annual Obesity Week conference, a joint meeting hosted by The Obesity Society and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), in National Harbor, Maryland.  Given the scale, complexity and impact of overweight and obesity on health and wellness, it was encouraging to see that these problems are being addressed from every possible angle.

Three sessions at the conference were focused on obesity and cancer; in addition, AICR sponsored a special cancer-focused issue of the Obesity Journal, timed to coincide with Obesity Week.  The research presented covered the full spectrum from lab studies to human interventions and policy advice on the links between obesity and cancer.

The defining moment for me was how cancer researcher Dr. Stephen Hursting captured the mood of the meeting perfectly saying: “We need to stop asking, “Is obesity a risk factor for cancer?” Yes. It is. Now we need to focus on how to reduce the impact of obesity on cancer risk and outcomes”.

I was excited to see the research community embracing Dr. Hursting’s mantra.  Scientists reported on important studies looking at how obesity may lead to changes in cells that can spur cancer growth. For example, one study showed that a low-calorie diet (and weight loss) decreased the proliferation of cells in the colon while a high-calorie diet (and weight gain) led to the growth of more cells.  This study indicates that changing diet and losing excess weight can have a direct impact on the tissues from which tumors arise.

“We need to stop asking, “Is obesity a risk factor for cancer?” Yes. It is. Now we need to focus on how to reduce the impact of obesity on cancer risk and outcomes”.

Researchers also shared positive results from studies looking at a variety of wellness steps to lower risk. For example, Dr. Catherine Davis reported that doing 20 minutes of high intensity exercise provided similar changes in insulin control and fitness as 40 minutes of moderate exercise in children with obesity. Since insulin resistance is linked to increased risk of cancer in adulthood, intervening early in life could reduce risk of cancer in later life.

Although science is clear that obesity increases cancer risk, not enough Americans are aware of the link or that they can take steps to reduce that risk.  And all attendees agreed that there is no single solution. For example, despite the effectiveness of bariatric surgery for weight loss the surgeons were clear that surgery alone is not the solution to the obesity epidemic.

I was struck by how the final conference presentation illustrated the need for the right solution for the right patient. Two ex-National Football League players, Cory Louchie and James Thornton discussed how after decades of weight gain, required by their sport, both found themselves facing long-term consequences of their body mass. The two players decided to tackle the problem at the same time. Each took a different path (one surgical, one dietary) but both also embraced lifestyle changes to improve their health. Crucially, both players credited peer-support for their success in achieving their goals.

Obesity Week provides a platform to researchers and policy makers to highlight obesity and its consequences. The harnessing of accurate research by engaged people provides our best chances of turning the tide and reducing the burden of obesity.

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    Author: Nigel Brockton

    Nigel Brockton is Director of Research for the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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