Linking obesity and cancer

Nils Halberg heads a research group to find out how obesity is connected to cancer.

Nils Halberg
Researcher and junior group leader Nils Halberg, Department of Biomedicine, University of Bergen (UiB).
Kim E. Andreassen

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In 2014, Nils Halberg was finishing his postdoctoral fellowship at the Rockefeller University in New York.  Now, he is a cancer researcher at the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Bergen (UiB).

Halberg’s move to Bergen came about as a result of Professor James Lorens search for candidates to the Bergen Research Foundation (BFS) Recruitment Programme.

Intimate research relations

“Bergen represents a unique place in the sense that the distance between basic and clinical science is fairly short, as we work close to each other and to the patients,” says Halberg about the intimate work environment he now is a part of.

“As a researcher you are allowed to do a lot of research directly related to patients that is not allowed or difficult anywhere else in the world.”

Halberg has performed leading edge research at institutions like the Rockefeller University and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He has also published several articles in high impact scientific journals such as Nature, mainly on the cellular machinery that drives metastatic colonization.

Higher cancer risk in obese

Thanks to the BFS grant, Halberg has built his own research group with the ambition of finding the link between obesity and cancer. According to statistical and epidemiological data, there is a clear link between obesity and some types of cancer, for instance uterus cancer. But currently, we know very little as to how these two disease states interact.

“To date, nobody knows why there is a connection between obesity and cancer. The ambition of my research group is to find answers to this, without any foregone conclusions or biased hypothesis,” says Halberg.

The focus of the research in the lab is how the cellular mechanisms of the cancer cell are affected by obesity. This is the hard and the risky part, but also where the researchers can get such detailed knowledge so they can target it therapeutically.

Halberg and his team have started out with analysing RNA from tumours in real patients. Computers help the researchers to single out 10 to 20 suspicious genes from 42,000. These genes are currently being tested in obese mice, to see if they are relevant to the cellular mechanisms, like signalling and hormone receptors that can lead to cancer.

Adjusted treatment

Halberg says he got interested in obesity and cancer, not only because its connection represents a new field of research and is an unresolved puzzle. One of his motivations is also to offer better cancer treatment.

“Right now, cancer patients are treated the same regardless of their state of obesity. I think it is not far fetched to suggest that since the cellular environment in obese patients is different from that found in non-obese patients, the cancer is also different. This means that you cannot use the same treatment for both,” says Halberg.

“Because of the magnitude of obese people in the western world, there is a direct link to how our research can benefit a large group of patients.”

Expanding his research

Halberg has two PhD candidates and a researcher connected to his research group. His groups if part of James Lorens’ Cellular Network Group (CELLNET).

Now, Halberg wants to expand his own group. He aims to build his own Halberg Lab, to involve more personnel in the research, and to put the question of obesity and cancer to a deeper onto a more detailed level. He also wants to expand research from uterus cancer to including kidney and breast cancer, which is also connected to obesity.

“I hope that future grants will allow us to hire more personnel and take the original questions from the BFS funded research further. It will really allow us to focus on these mechanistic issues,” says Nils Halberg.

“I would like to establish a group in Bergen of five to six people. With this, I want to plant a flag. So when people ask about the connection between obesity and cancer, the answer is: You should look at this group´s papers.”