Excess belly fat may hike pancreatic cancer risk

Model of the digestive system, with a scientist pointing at the pancreas

Obesity is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer – but our scientists have discovered that where the fat sits may be especially important for this deadly cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer, with around 496,000 cases diagnosed around the world in 2020, the latest year that we have data for.

Sadly, it’s hard to treat pancreatic cancer, as the disease often doesn’t have clear symptoms at an early stage, when the cancer is more treatable. You can find out more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer on the Pancreatic Cancer UK website.

With a hard-to-treat cancer, it’s vital that we research into who is more at risk of developing it in the first place. Scientists have known for many years that pancreatic cancer is one of at least 13 different cancer types that are made more likely by overweight and obesity.

World Cancer Research Fund has funded a grant to Prof Inga Prokopenko, at the University of Surrey, looking at how the genetics of diabetes and cancer are linked. Following interesting early results from Prof Prokopenko’s research, we’ve helped to fund Prof

Prokopenko’s study into how people’s weight affects their risk of pancreatic cancer.

Role of belly fat

Rather than just looking at a person’s body mass index, which shows whether someone is a healthy weight, Prof Prokopenko’s team looked at waist-to-hip ratio as well, which gives a clearer indication of how the fat around our waist – sometimes known as belly fat – affects pancreatic cancer risk.

The results showed that having excess belly fat – based on combined measurements of body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio is an important factor that can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Researchers suggest that abdominal obesity may be even more important than overall body fat when it comes to the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The researchers also showed that type 2 diabetes may drive this increased risk.

This research has important implications for healthcare providers, showing that it’s essential to keep an eye on belly fat and not just focus on overall weight gain. By paying attention to fat around a person’s organs, doctors may be able to reduce people’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

The research was published in a scientific journal called the European Journal of Human Genetics. The researchers used large-scale datasets from the UK Biobank of anonymised health data, and looked at the evidence using Mendelian randomisation – which is a statistically thorough method of analysis. After this early success, the researchers have called for more research to further validate the results in larger data sets.

> Explore all the pancreatic cancer research we’re funding

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