A 'guardian angel' hormone for breast cancer patients

Dipali Sharma

Dipali Sharma believes the key to translating research from the lab to patient care lies in finding a way to increase a person's adiponectin.

While some of the hormones produced by the breast's fat cells are harmful, one such hormone acts as a "guardian angel" against breast cancer.

The hormone adiponectin is known to protect the body's metabolism and heart against the effects of obesity. Researchers at Emory's Winship Cancer Institute have found that adiponectin also can reduce the ability of breast cancer cells to migrate and invade other tissues.

"What kills someone with breast cancer is that the cancer cells learn to get away from the 'basement container.' They learn to migrate to the lung, liver, and beyond," says Dipali Sharma, a hematology/oncology researcher. 

The key to translating this research from the lab to patient care lies in finding a way to increase a person's adiponectin, Sharma says. Anti-diabetic drugs known as thiazolidinediones increase adiponectin's activity, but they have toxic side effects. Adiponectin is present in plasma, but "the problem is that we need it to go where we want it," she says. "With an injection of a high level of adiponectin, you don't know what you might trigger. That's something we need to test."

What can increase adiponectin is weight loss. Obese people have lower levels of adiponectin than people of normal weight and an increased risk of breast cancer. Low levels of adiponectin also were found in patients with aggressive tumors. 

Winship scientists are testing a molecule found in certain foods, like grapes, cabbage, and green tea, that appears to mimic adiponectin. 

The hormone leptin also is known to breast cancer researchers. Leptin is a satiety hormone, yet found in high levels in obese people. (Scientists theorize that obese people may be leptin-resistant.) Studies in mice predisposed to breast cancer have found that when leptin is turned off, the cancerous tumors cease to grow. 

"We've only scratched the surface," Sharma says. "We might find a gold mine of molecules that may inhibit leptin or enhance adiponectin."

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winter cover 2010