Role of Lipids in the Development of Cancer

Instructor: Joshua Bowles

Joshua is a Sports Medicine and Athletic Training Instructor and has a Master's degree in Kinesiology.

In this lesson we will discuss the role that lipids and the metabolism of lipids play in the development and proliferation of cancer cells within the human body.


We hear all the time about how important our diet is and how certain foods can be key in our lives. What we eat can either lead us on a road to better health or inhibit us from reaching our health goals.

More and more research has been published over the role of certain types of food and the benefits or harm they have on the human body. In this lesson we will take a closer look at lipids and the role they might play in the development of cancer.


Lipids are a group of molecules that do not mix easily with water. They include fats, phospholipids, waxes and triglycerides to name a few examples.

The common thought is that lipids are the fat that we eat and what makes up our fat cells in our body. While that is partially true, dietary fat (known as fatty acids) are actually called triglycerides in their correct medical terminology.

Triglycerides are a subcategory of the lipid group, and are stored in our body in special fat cells that make up our adipose tissue, which is what makes up our overall body fat tissue.

Lipid molecules are important for:

  • Energy
  • Hormone function and regulation
  • Proper vitamin absorption

A cancer cell dividing and growing
cancer cell division

Role in Cancer Development

In the last few years, there has been an increase in scientific research on the role that lipids might play in the development of cancer. There are two main terms involved:

  1. Lipid synthesis is the transformation of carbon molecules being converted into fatty acids.
  2. Lipid metabolism is either the breaking down or the storage of fats for energy. Also known as degradation.

Cancer cells are irregular and malformed cells that divide and metabolize quickly, forming tumors that can destroy other healthy cells. These cancer cells force an increase in other metabolic productions, for example lipids, proteins and nucleic acids.

Cancer metabolism has been extensively studied. We know cancer cells need energy and extra molecular material in order to grow and expand at a high rate. This process is known as metabolic reprogramming. Cellular structures in the body have two main sources of energy, glucose and lipids. Glucose provides rapid and easily accessible energy, while lipids provide a slower metabolizing energy that lasts longer over time.

One of the first steps in tumor development is glucose uptake into the cells to increase lactacte production, allowing the cell to generate more energy. This is known as the Warburg effect.

New research has shown evidence that strong, active cancer cells are utilizing lipids, lipoproteins and cholesterol. High levels of these lipids can indicate a strong level of cancer aggressiveness. Further evidence has shown that fatty acid uptake helps with the cancer disease progression and overall survival of cancer cells.

Lipids provide more energy compared to glucose, which could allow the cancer cells to grow and live longer. This is how lipid synthesis plays a role in the development and progression of cancer, as the converted fatty acids can serve as an energy source. This can effect the overall treatment of the disease as lipid-rich cancer cells have been shown to be more resistant to chemotherapy.

Some scientists have suggested that targeting their focus on lipid metabolism may have positive therapeutic effects on cancer cells. More research will hopefully shed more light on this idea.

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