Scientists discover how sugar fuels cancer growth

A nine-year research project looking at the link between sugar and cancer has led to an important breakthrough in cancer research.

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Scientists from The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium have revealed how something called the Warburg effect induces tumor growth. The Warburg effect was first observed by Otto Heinrich Warburg in 1924 and refers to the hypothesis that cancer cells break down significantly higher amounts of sugar than healthy cells do.

Until now, this effect has been considered a prominent feature of tumor cells, but despite many studies being carried out, researchers have been unable to clarify whether the effect is a cause of cancer or merely a symptom of it.

Lead researcher of the current project, Johan Thevelein, says the findings have explained the mechanism underlying the aggressive growth of cancer and how it is fuelled by glucose. The team showed that the hyperactive sugar consumption by cancer cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth, explaining the link between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness. This finding could have a long-standing impact on how diets are planned for cancer patients.

“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," says Thevelein.

As reported in Nature Communications, the team used yeast cells to investigate the phenomenon. Yeast cells contain the same “Ras” proteins that are commonly found in cancer cells and can cause cancer in mutated form. The researchers used yeast cells because they do not employ the regulatory mechanisms that mammalian cells do. This has the advantage of providing a much clearer picture of how cancer cells function, since the underlying process is not concealed.

“We observed in yeast that sugar degradation is linked via the intermediate fructose 1,6-biophosphate to the activation of Ras proteins, which stimulate the multiplication of both yeast and cancer cells,” explains Thevelein.

However, Thevelein says the findings are not sufficient to identify the primary cause of the Warburg effect: “Further research is needed to find out whether this primary cause is also conserved in yeast cells."

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