HKUMed research validates TCM liver-breast cancer theory: fatty liver linked to deteriorating breast cancer

08 July 2024

A research team from the School of Chinese Medicine, LKS Faculty of Medicine, the University of Hong Kong (HKUMed) has made a remarkable discovery that patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (commonly known as fatty liver disease) exhibit excessive production of a hepatokine called 'Fibroblast Growth Factor 21 (FGF21)' in their liver, which may accelerate the growth of breast cancer tumours. The findings provide scientific evidence validating the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory of ‘breast disease from liver dysfunction’, and shedding light on the potential mechanisms underlying TCM treatments for breast-related conditions. The findings were published in the scientific journal Cell Death and Disease [link to publication]. 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women both in Hong Kong and worldwide. Ongoing research has revealed that breast cancer is a systemic disease, with its etiology and pathogenesis potentially linked to multiple organs and tissues. The liver is a key organ that plays a central role in the body's energy metabolism, and the incidence of liver diseases, such as fatty liver, has increased rapidly in recent years. Clinical studies have found that fatty liver disease is an independent risk factor, contributing to an increased incidence of breast cancer. Patients with fatty liver have about a 1.4-fold higher risk of developing breast cancer, and the condition also adversely affects the malignancy of breast cancer. However, the direct impact and underlying mechanism of fatty liver on breast cancer remain unclear. The influence of the liver on breast cancer is often underestimated due to other surrogate diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, in breast cancer patients. 

FGF21 is a hepatokine, a protein secreted by the liver. Recent research has found that fatty liver and other liver diseases are often associated with the abnormal secretion of FGF21. This hormone can induce the development of various cancers, including liver, thyroid and lung cancer. However, the specific role of FGF21 in breast cancer has not been mentioned in previous research. 

Findings and Implications
A research team led by Dr Chen Jianping, Principal Lecturer in the School of Chinese Medicine, HKUMed, found that mice with fatty liver disease exhibited overexpression and secretion of the hepatokine FGF21 in the liver. The team conducted an oncogenic activity study, which confirmed that excessive supplementation of exogenous FGF21 significantly accelerated the growth of mammary tumours in mice; while knockout of the FGF21 gene, in contrast, weakened the effect. The in vitro cell model also revealed that liver cells in fatty liver could enhance the proliferation of breast cancer cells, but this effect was diminished when the FGF21 gene was removed from the liver cells. According to the mechanistic investigation, FGF21 can regulate signalling pathways related to the death of breast cancer cells, thereby promoting breast tumour growth.

The researchers also analysed tumour samples from patients with primary breast cancer and found a higher expression of FGF21 than in normal breast tissue. The increased FGF21 expression was also associated with higher rates of recurrence and mortality in patients. The study also found that excessive secretion of FGF21 by the liver in fatty liver disease could accelerate the growth of breast tumours, enhance the resistance of cancer cells to cell death, and reduce the therapeutic efficacy of the chemotherapy drug Doxorubicin. 

Clinical studies have found that women with fatty liver disease have a significantly higher risk of breast cancer, highlighting the importance of liver health for the prevention of breast cancer in women and revealing the existence of the ‘liver-breast axis’. Dr Chen Jianping pointed out that there is a TCM theory of ‘breast disease from liver dysfunction’. She said, ‘This TCM theory emphasises the critical role of liver health in maintaining women's breast health and the positive effect liver health has on the treatment of breast cancer. This study provides scientific evidence for the existence of a “liver-breast axis” at both the animal and cellular levels, supporting the clinical application of the TCM theory of “breast disease from liver dysfunction” in breast cancer management.’

Dr Chen added that the team planned to build upon this study to further investigate the connection between the liver and the breast, with the aim of providing new insights and approaches that will advance understanding of the etiology and pathogenesis of breast cancer, as well as the development of novel clinical prevention and treatment of breast cancer. The research underscores the scientific and practical value of TCM theories.

About the research team
The study was led by Dr Chen Jianping, Principal Lecturer from the School of Chinese Medicine, HKUMed. Other researchers included Dr Sui Yue, a postdoctoral fellow; Dr Liu Qingqing, a former postdoctoral fellow; and Dr Ganesan Kumar, a senior research assistant, from the same School.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation of China, and Guangxi Science and Technology Key Research and Development Programme. 


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The research team led by Dr Chen Jianping (middle) discovers fatty liver disease can exacerbate breast cancer. The team members include Dr Sui Yue (back row, second left), Dr Ganesan Kumar (back row, middle), and Dr Liu Qingqing (back row, second right).
Dr Chen Jianping (left) provides scientific evidence for supporting the clinical application of the 'breast disease from liver dysfunction' TCM theory.