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Vanderbilt Study Finds Diabetes May Hasten Breast Cancer Tumor Growth and Stiffness

Supriyo Rana | February 2, 2023

Diabetes is a scary and uncomfortable disease. Patients, unable to regulate their blood glucose levels, face symptoms such as blurry vision, fatigue, frequent urination, and a propensity to various infections. Now, increased risk for breast cancer tumor growth and stiffness can be added to the list, following a new Vanderbilt study on the link between diabetes and breast cancer.

The study, led by Dr. Cynthia Reinhart-King, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and University Distinguished Professor, was published in Science Advances on November 18, 2022. Besides finding that diabetes patients may be at risk for increased tumor growth and stiffness, the study also found that diabetes treatments can reduce the tumor growth and stiffness in comparison with non-diabetic treatments. 

What is the link between diabetes and breast cancer?

According to background information presented in the Reinhart-King et al, diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder that is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Patients with breast cancer that have also had diabetes for over 5 years generally have a higher mortality rate than non-diabetic patients with breast cancer. In general, diabetes has been found to promote tumor progression through increased insulin, increased blood sugar, and chronic inflammation. 

How does increased blood sugar promote tumor progression? 

Reinhart-King et al. presents a previously unknown biomechanical mechanism which could explain how high blood sugar affects the extracellular matrix of cells to accelerate tumor growth and stiffness in breast cancer. 

In uncovering this biochemical mechanism, the team included high blood sugar in mice before inducing breast tumor development in the mice. In addition to patient samples with high blood sugar and breast tumors, the results from this mice study showed that high blood glucose increased tumor growth. Additionally, by inhibiting certain biological processes in diabetic mice, tumors were reduced to levels comparable with nondiabetic tumors.

Ultimately, the biomechanical mechanism presented by the paper explains that the observed promotion of breast tumor progression by high blood sugar occurs due to high glycosylation of the extracellular matrix of cells.

Applications and future work

In light of these results, the paper went one step further, providing evidence that glycosylation inhibition is a potential adjuvant therapy for diabetic cancer patients, due to the stiffening of the extracellular matrix in both diseases.

Overall, Dr. Reinhart-King’s study has many implications in studying the link between diabetes and breast cancers. Although there have already been previous studies suggesting a connection between the two diseases, Reinhart-King’s study paves the way for scientists to explore ways to suppress the development of tumors in breast cancer for diabetes patients.


Wang, W., Hapach, L. A., Griggs, L., Smart, K., Wu, Y., Taufalele, P. V., Rowe, M. M., Young, K. M., Bates, M. E., Johnson, A. C., Ferrell, N. J., Pozzi, A., & Reinhart-King, C. A. (2022). Diabetic hyperglycemia promotes primary tumor progression through glycation-induced tumor extracellular matrix stiffening. Science Advances, 8(46), eabo1673.