Energy balance and cancer: the role of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-I

Proc Nutr Soc. 2001 Feb;60(1):91-106. doi: 10.1079/pns200070.


Recent theories propose that a Western lifestyle may increase cancer risk through alterations in the metabolism of insulin and insulin-like growth factors (IGF: McKeown-Eyssen, 1994; Giovannucci, 1995; Kaaks, 19%; Werner & LeRoith, 1996). Insulin regulates energy metabolism, and increases the bioactivity of IGF-I, by enhancing its synthesis. and by decreasing several of its binding proteins (IGFBP; IGFBP-1 and -2). Insulin and IGF-I both stimulate anabolic processes as a function of available energy and elementary substrates (e.g. amino acids). The anabolic signals by insulin or IGF-I can promote tumour development by inhibiting apoptosis, and by stimulating cell proliferation. Furthermore, both insulin and IGF-I stimulate the synthesis of sex steroids, and inhibit the synthesis of sex hormone-binding globulin (SFIBG), a binding protein that regulates the bioavailability of circulating sex steroids to tissues. The present paper reviews epidemiological findings relating the risk of cancers of the colo-rectum, pancreas, breast, endometrium and prostate to body size (obesity, height) and physical activity, and discusses the relationships between obesity and physical activity and plasma levels of insulin, IGF-I and IGFBP. Subsequent sections review epidemiological findings relating cancer risk to indices of chronic hyperinsulinaemia, and to plasma levels of IGF-I and IGFBP. Conclusions are that chronic hyperinsulinaemia may be a cause of cancers of the colon, pancreas and endometrium, and also possibly of the breast. On the other hand, elevated plasma IGF-I, as total concentrations or relative to levels of IGFBP-3, appears to be related to an increased risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer in young women, and possibly cob-rectal cancer. For cancers of the endometrium, breast and prostate, these findings are discussed in the context of relationships between insulin and IGF-I and levels of bioavailable sex steroids.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis
  • Cell Division
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Exercise
  • Humans
  • Insulin / blood
  • Insulin / physiology*
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Proteins / blood*
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / physiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Risk Factors


  • Insulin
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Proteins
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I