NOV 25, 2019 8:50 AM PST

Linking Intestinal Stem Cells with Increased Cancer Risk From a High-Fat Diet

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Researchers have known for some time that there is a link between diet and colon cancer; foods that promote inflammation, like processed meat or sugars, carry an increased risk of colon cancer and diets rich in leafy greens and whole grains can lower that risk. Now scientists have identified two genes that help intestinal stem cells burn dietary fat, which may also influence colon cancer development. The work, which used a mouse model, links stem cell activity with cellular fat consumption in a new way and has been reported in the journal Gastroenterology.

This image shows intestinal stem cells (green) and fatty acids (red) in the intestine of mice. Intestinal stem cells can self-renew and they fuel complete turnover of the intestinal lining every three to five days. Fatty acids are an important nutrient source for the self-renewal of intestinal stem cells.  / Credit: Lei Chen

"This is important because scientists have shown that when there's too much dietary fat in the intestine, stem cell numbers increase, boosting susceptibility to colon cancer," said the senior study author Michael Verzi, an associate professor in the Department of Genetics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 101,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, and it's thought that around 51,000 people will die of the disease in 2019. 

A western diet that is high in fat has been shown to increase the risk of colon cancer in animal studies and has been linked to increased risk of colon cancer in humans.

Every day, our bodies lose millions of cells, including intestinal cells. These cells are constantly being replenished and in the intestine, the lining experiences a continuous turnover. However, dysfunction or alterations in intestinal stem cells can promote colon cancer. 

Two genes called HNF4A and HNF4G are known to influence the normal function of the intestinal lining. In this work, the researchers found that intestinal stem cells in mice were lost when the two genes were active. The researchers suggested that the genes are aiding the stem cells as they burn fat for energy.

The scientists now want to know more about how the intestinal stem cell population is altered by the genes, and how they play a role in an increased risk of cancer during a diet rich in fat. 

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Rutgers University, Gastroenterology

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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