Texas Medical Center

MD Anderson Center Connects the Dots between Obesity and Cancer



By Katrina Burton  |  MD Anderson Cancer Center

A new center focused on bridging the gap between physical activity, nutrition, obesity and cancer has opened at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship, one of the few comprehensive research-focused centers dedicated to clinical and basic research, is shining the spotlight on a growing national problem that is feeding cancer development.

Obesity is no longer considered a “condition,” but instead was declared a “disease” by the American Medical Association earlier this year. Obesity is not only being tied to chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, but also to different cancers, including breast, colon, pancreas and endometrial.


Karen Basen-Engquist,

With more than 85,000 cancer cases attributed to obesity each year, Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at MD Anderson, says the increasing numbers are not only a health care problem, but a public health epidemic.

“We have to set priorities for future research investigating the mechanisms behind this disease,” she said “and conduct trials to examine the effect of lifestyle changes and weight-loss interventions.”

Basen-Engquist, director of MD Anderson’s new center, has set the stage for researchers, scientists, oncologists, nutritionists, exercise physiologists and others within the institution and beyond to work on reducing and preventing cancer risk and cancer recurrence, as well as improving the health of survivors.

The center is focusing on prevention and survivorship-related interventions; on investigating how key energy balance concepts affect cancer biomarkers; and understanding the biological and psychosocial mechanisms behind weight, eating behavior and being physically active.


Donna Griffith, a research nurse supervisor,
lost more than 20 pounds by participating in
a pilot study of lifestyle intervention for
endometrial cancer prevention. The trial
took place at MD Anderson’s new Center for
Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and

As a research nurse supervisor in gynecological oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson, Donna Griffith is only too aware of the cancer risk excess weight poses for women. She was excited to learn about the new center and the research that is underway.

Griffith recently participated in the center’s research study, Project LEAP – Lowering Endometrial Cancer Risk Through Activity, Nutrition, and Preventive Medicines – a pilot study of lifestyle intervention in an endometrial cancer prevention trial using metformin, a diabetes prevention drug. The study randomizes post-menopausal women with a body mass index of 30 or greater to determine the most effective method of reducing a woman’s risk for developing endometrial cancer. Participants in the study are assigned to one of four groups: metformin; placebo; placebo and intensive lifestyle intervention; or metformin and intensive lifestyle intervention.

By participating in the study, Griffith says not only did she contribute to important research and lose more than 20 pounds during her four months in the trial, but her family was also able to benefit from the lifestyle changes she made.

“My husband is diabetic and he has also lost weight,” she said. “We are both living healthier lifestyles.”

“We know that recent research has found an increase in obesity-related cancers and that 50 percent of cancers can be prevented by incorporating a healthy diet and exercise into your daily routine,” says Basen-Engquist. “However, there may be other mechanisms at work, and we need to identify these biomarkers to initiate the appropriate interventions.”

In addition to an array of activities that increase collaborative research efforts across the institution, the center has multidisciplinary work groups focused on finding answers to specific scientific problems surrounding energy balance.

“The support from MD Anderson’s Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment allows us to develop multidisciplinary research, create lifestyle interventions and implement exploratory studies addressing multiple cancers that are linked to obesity,” said Basen-Engquist. “We anticipate the center will serve as a model for other energy balance centers and ultimately set the standard for tackling obesity issues that are linked to multiple poor health outcomes.”

Basen-Engquist recently completed a National Cancer Institute-funded study investigating the mechanisms of exercise adoption and maintenance in endometrial cancer survivors. The study tested the social, psychological and behavioral predictors of a person’s ability to initiate and continue an exercise program, and found that daily variations in survivors’ beliefs about exercise were strongly associated with the amount they exercised.

“In the center we are working across disciplines to understand the mechanisms underlying behaviors like exercise and healthy eating, as well as their relationship to cancer,” she said. “We then want to use this knowledge to optimize approaches to decrease cancer risk and improve outcomes. So our work has relevance for cancer patients, survivors and healthy individuals.”

For more information about the center, upcoming events or to participate in a research study, visit MD Anderson’s Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship or call Mary Bispeck at 713-792-5039.