Obesity connection to leukemia may lead to new target for treatment

Hormel Institute's research accepted in Leukemia

The Hormel Institute’s Dr. Shujun Liu, head of the Cancer Epigenetics and Experimental Therapeutics section, and other researchers including Drs. F. Yan, N. Shen, J.X. Pang, W. Zhang, Ann M. Bode, D. Zhang, M. Litzow and B. Li had groundbreaking research published in the high impact international cancer journal this week.

The project, “Fatty Acid-Binding Protein FABP4 Mechanistically Links Obesity with Aggressive AML by Enhancing Aberrant DNA Methylation in AML Cells,” was published in the November 2016 issue of Leukemia, the number one journal in Hematology covering research on leukemia and related diseases.

Although it is well known that obesity is connected to other types of cancer, this research, published by The Hormel Institute scientists along with collaborators from University of Louisville, Mayo Clinic, Moores UCSD Cancer Center and UC San Diego, is the first to experimentally demonstrate a leukemia-obesity association. The scientists found a previously unknown molecular mechanism linking obesity to not only leukemia, but also other cancers. This mechanism, known as the FABP4-IL-6-DNMT1 cascade, was discovered while looking for answers to leukemia, but could help researchers understand the obesity-cancer link for a wide range of other cancers.

Dr. Liu, whose lab studies cancer epigenetics, said these findings identified FABP4 as a fully new type of epigenetic modulator, meaning FABP4 affects how genes are switched on and off swiftly and how cells interpret genes and then rapidly evolve through environmental-selective pressure.

“Our discoveries suggest that epigenetics serves as a door/window connecting environmental factors to cancer pathogenesis,” said Liu, who has been at The Hormel Institute since 2011.

With this new knowledge, researchers can next attempt to target this molecular mechanism for treating leukemia, and potentially, other types of cancers.