In a study of mice, scientists from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA discovered that boosting the animals' cholesterol levels spurred intestinal stem cells to divide more quickly, enabling tumours to form 100 times faster.
The study has identified a molecular pathway that could serve as a new drug target for colon cancer treatment.
Study author Dr Peter Tontonoz said, "We were excited to find that cholesterol influences the growth of stem cells in the intestines, which in turn accelerates the rate of tumor formation by more than 100-fold".
"While the connection between dietary cholesterol and colon cancer is well established, no one has previously explained the mechanism behind it", Tontonoz added.
The team increased cholesterol in the intestinal stem cells in some of the mice by introducing more of the substance into their diets.
While in others, they altered a gene that regulates phospholipids, the primary type of fat in cell membranes, which spurred the cells into producing more cholesterol on their own.
The stem cells' ability to multiply increased in both groups.
The results indicated that as the animals' cholesterol levels rose, their cells divided more rapidly, causing the tissue lining their guts to expand and their intestines to lengthen.
These changes significantly sped up the rate of tumor formation in their colons.
The research is published online in the journal of Cell Stem Cell. (ANI)