November 1, 2017 / All Stories

Science Rocks! The cancer cells with an uncontrollable sweet tooth

Nearly a century ago, one scientist discovered cancer cells’ insatiable appetite for sugar, but is it a symptom of cancer or one of the causes?

Science Rocks! features AbbVie medical experts who discuss the research that inspires them –inside and outside of work. In this month's feature, Isidro Villaneuva Torrecillas, M.D., Ph.D., vice president, medical affairs, AbbVie, shares how scientists are beginning to pinpoint why cancer cells have such an appetite for sugar.

As a medical professional, I work to try to enhance our understanding of how diseases and health conditions impact patients, health care systems and society as a whole. As a scientist, I’m insatiably curious, which drives me to read on a daily basis about technological and scientific advances in a quest to know more.

An area of personal interest is how behavioral choices and, particularly, diet have an impact on health and overall wellbeing. It is well established that a diet high in simple carbohydrates, particularly sugar in any of its varieties, has a harmful effect on the body. It is directly linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome and, potentially, an increased risk of cardiovascular events because of vascular inflammation.

With this context, a study I’ve read recently examines how sugar may cause the proliferation of cancer cells. By no means is this conclusive evidence, but the study tested this intriguing hypothesis by studying yeast cells. Yeast cells share with cancer cells the unusual characteristic of favoring fermentation of sugar – or glucose – to grow instead of using oxygen, and both exhibit rapid cell proliferation. That most cancer cells prefer sugar to oxygen to obtain energy is known as the Warburg effect.

Warburg suggested that high glycolytic activity may be causally related to the cancerous state, not just a symptom. It has been shown that there is a correlation between the rate of uncontrolled cell proliferation (resulting in tumor growth), the aggressive metastasis character of cancers and the extent of the Warburg effect. It is still unclear whether fermentation has a causative effect because there is no clear molecular link that has been identified between glycolysis and the proteins controlling cell proliferation.

The authors of this recent study showed how an overactive influx of glucose and glycolysis results in hyper activation of Ras, which is a major regulator of cancer cell proliferation. These results seem to suggest that the Warburg effect creates a vicious intercellular cycle through activation of Ras, by which enhanced fermentation stimulates tumor growth. This raises an interesting prospect for diet counseling for cancer patients as a complement to therapies.

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