Experimental Cholesterol Drug Shows Potential to Fight Breast Cancer

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Drug discovery is a long, tedious process. It can take decades of lab work before a formula is ready for clinical testing, and surprises can often pop up along the way. A group of researchers from the University of Missouri discovered that a compound developed to lower cholesterol was also able to fight certain types of breast cancer. The study was led by Salman Hyder and the results were described in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

“Cholesterol is a molecule found in all animal cells and serves as a structural component of cell membranes,” Hyder said in a press release. “Because tumor cells grow rapidly they need to synthesize more cholesterol. Scientists working to cure breast cancer often seek out alternative targets that might slow or stop the progression of the disease, including the elimination of the cancerous cells. In our study, we targeted the production of cholesterol in cancer cells leading to death of breast cancer cells.”

There are many different types of breast cancer, differing in cause, location, tumor characteristics, and prognosis. Just under three quarters of all breast cancers respond to medications that regulate hormone expression, though some individuals may develop a resistance to the drug. 

A study released last year by researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute demonstrated that tumor cells convert cholesterol into a hormone that behaves similarly to estrogen, which fuels breast cancer. The relationship between high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and cancer have been known for some time, but the mechanism has only recently been determined. By managing cholesterol levels, the cancer is choked out. 

Hyder’s lab injected the drug that was developed to lower cholesterol into mice that had been given human breast cancer. They found that it reduced the amount of estrogen receptors on the tumor cells, which ended up starving and ultimately killing them. 

“The compound exhibited anti-tumor properties in both human samples, which were outside the body, and in samples that were administered by injection into the mice,” Hyder explained. “In both cases, the proteins that cause tumors to grow were eliminated, leading to more aggressive cell death.”

The drug, RO 48-8071, was tested alongside two drugs currently on the market, Fluvastatin and Simvastatin. RO 48-8071 was much more effective at reducing tumor cells than the other two drugs. It is also important to note that the drug only affected estrogen receptors on tumor cells and left healthy mammary cells alone. With additional research, RO 48-8071 may possibly be used to treat cancer and high cholesterol simultaneously.

[Header image: “Mammogram” by slgckgc via flickr, used in accordance with CC BY 2.0]

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