Witholding sugar can kill cancer cells, researchers say

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

Researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute have discovered that cancerous cells need sugar and cutting it off can help fight the disease.

The findings could lead to the development of new chemotherapy drugs that would stop the progress of the tumor growth by restricting the cell’s ability to utilize glucose.

“It turns out that cancer cells need glucose to make cell membranes and other biomolecular structures to divide,” said Don Ayer, a HCI investigator and U cancer professor. “Since they divide a lot, they need more glucose. Essentially, they become addicted.”

Scientists have known since 1923 that cancer cells use glucose to grow. However, this is the first time they have found that restricting the utilization of glucose had the ability to kill the cancer cells.

Ayer’s research shows that glucose and the amino-acid glutamine8212;the second essential element of cancer’s diet8212;are interdependant for cell growth, despite decades of thinking they worked independently. Ayer discovered that if the glutamine supply in the cell is restricted, the cell stops using the glucose. Without the glucose to “feed” the cells, they will die and the tumor growth would be halted.

“What we’ve done is discover basic processes of over-utilization of glucose,” Ayer said. “Just having that knowledge of what drives metabolic processes gives us new drugs to target cancer cells.”

Despite these findings, Ayer doubts whether changing the diet of cancer patients to contain less sugary foods is ultimately beneficial. Because the sugar in the blood is already strictly controlled by the body’s hormone system, changing the diet to restrict the amount of sugar intake would not be an effective treatment or as usable cancer prevention. Along the same lines, a sugar-rich diet would not cause someone to develop cancer, Ayer said.

The next step for Ayer and his team is to figure out how to restrict the cell’s usage of glucose, cutting it off from its addiction on the biological level. Presently, their findings are based on tissue samples, but they are working on developing a mouse model before testing it on humans.

The National Institute of Health and HCI funded the research.

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