Obese more at risk of cancer because fat clogs up cells that kill it

Obesity puts you more at risk of cancer ‘because fat clogs up and slows down the cells that fight off the disease’

  • Lead ‘Natural Killer’ cells stutter and fail when excess fat blocks their pathways 
  • New research shows the damage can be reversed to kick the cells into action
  • Obesity is the second leading preventable cause of cancer in the UK 
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Obesity boots your risk of cancer because fat clogs up and slow down the cells that fight it off, a study has shown.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin claim the finding is a major breakthrough for understanding the link between obesity and cancer.

The link between obesity and cancer has existed for decades – but little was known about the impact being overweight has on the immune system.

But the new research, led by Professor Lydia Lynch, shows the main cells, called ‘natural killer’ cells, stutter and fail in overweight people.

Obesity leads to cancer because fat clogs up and slow down the cells that fight it off, new research at Trinity College Dublin has found

Professor Lynch and her colleagues say these cells can be restored into action by losing weight or exercising. 

They also discuss how the blocking of transport of fatty acids around the body can ‘induce a metabolic switch’, so that the killer cells can resume their function. 

More than 1.9 billion adults are overweight and obese – and around one in 20 cancer cases of cancer are caused by excess weight. 

The study used natural killer cells from humans in an experiment on mice.

It showed the clogging up does not prevent the natural killer cells from recognising tumour cells – but it does prevent them from killing them.

Further investigations showed which specific step that was stifled that would see the killer cells re-programmed.   

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Professor Lynch said: ‘Despite increased public awareness, the prevalence of obesity and related diseases continue. 

‘Therefore, there is increased urgency to understand the pathways whereby obesity causes cancer and leads to other diseases, and to develop new strategies to prevent their progression.’

‘Our results highlight immuno-metabolic pathways as a promising target to reverse immune defects in obesity.’

She added that the findings suggest naturally rebooting the natural killer cells ‘may kick-start their anti-cancer activity and improve treatment outcomes’.  

Obesity is already the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK behind smoking, figures show.

But experts predict it will overtake as the leading preventable cause of cancer in women within 25 years, according to a study by Cancer Research UK.

It predicts one in ten new female cancer cases – around 23,000 a year – will be caused by excess weight by 2035, only 2,000 fewer than by tobacco.

Rising obesity levels combined with falling smoking rates will see the two switch places by 2043, when 26,000 cases will be blamed on bulging waistlines. 

The shocking rise is because women are prone to more obesity-related cancers than men – including breast and womb cancer.


Obesity is defined as an adult having a BMI of 30 or over.

A healthy person’s BMI – calculated by dividing weight in kg by height in metres, and the answer by the height again – is between 18.5 and 24.9. 

Among children, obesity is defined as being in the 95th percentile.

Percentiles compare youngsters to others their same age. 

For example, if a three-month-old is in the 40th percentile for weight, that means that 40 per cent of three-month-olds weigh the same or less than that baby.

Around 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men in the UK are overweight or obese. 

The condition costs the NHS around £6.1billion, out of its approximate £124.7 billion budget, every year.

This is due to obesity increasing a person’s risk of a number of life-threatening conditions.

Such conditions include type 2 diabetes, which can cause kidney disease, blindness and even limb amputations.

Research suggests that at least one in six hospital beds in the UK are taken up by a diabetes patient.

Obesity also raises the risk of heart disease, which kills 315,000 people every year in the UK – making it the number one cause of death.

Carrying dangerous amounts of weight has also been linked to 12 different cancers. 

This includes breast, which affects one in eight women at some point in their lives.

Among children, research suggests that 70 per cent of obese youngsters have high blood pressure or raised cholesterol, which puts them at risk of heart disease.

Obese children are also significantly more likely to become obese adults. 

And if children are overweight, their obesity in adulthood is often more severe.  

As many as one in five children start school in the UK being overweight or obese, which rises to one in three by the time they turn 10.  

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