There’s a long-known relationship between cancer and sugar, but figuring out exactly how it works has proven elusive. Now, thanks to a nine-year research project, scientists have made a breakthrough.
The focus of the new research was on a metabolic effect that has been understood for over 90 years.
Cancer cells tend to produce energy differently from normal cells — they use a process that involves fermentation of glucose into lactate, rather than ordinary respiration.
We know that almost all the cells in the human body require energy, and they derive this energy from the sugars in the food we eat. But cancer cells seem to require more than healthy cells do. They also seem to break sugar down faster. Cancer’s mechanism of speedily metabolizing sugar is known as the Warburg effect. But it’s hard to determine whether the Warburg effect is a symptom or a cause of cancer.
The objective was to shed light on the Warburg effect, which was discovered by Otto Warburg, a German physicist, in 1920.
Dr Warburg found that convert significantly higher amounts of sugar into lactate compared to healthy tissues.
Dr Warburg wasn’t able to explain this conundrum — nor was any other researcher in the years since.
It’s been proposed that the growth of cancer cells may be stymied by starving them of sugar, but the problem with that is there’s currently no method of cutting off the supply to cancer cells while keeping it open to normal cells.
This is why the biological mechanism behind the increased glucose metabolism is important. It may hold the key to starving cancer cells while keeping healthy cells functioning. We’re not there yet, but this research brings us a critical step closer.
Scientists have long pondered whether this phenomenon is related to how aggressively tumors grow.
“Our research reveals how the hyperactive sugar consumption of cancerous cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth,” explained study author Professor Johan Thevelein, from Belgium’s VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology, in a statement.
In lay terms, the researchers found that the yeast that had an overactive influx of glucose caused the Ras proteins to activate too much, which would then allow the cells to grow at an accelerated rate.
He was, however, careful to note that this research, while important, is one step in a much larger process — and that a breakthrough in research is not the same thing as a medical breakthrough.
“The findings are not sufficient to identify the primary cause of the Warburg effect,” he added. “Further research is needed to find out whether this primary cause is also conserved in yeast cells.”
“Thus, it is able to explain the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness. This link between sugar and cancer has sweeping consequences. Our results provide a foundation for future research in this domain, which can now be performed with a much more precise and relevant focus.”
The team’s research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.