There’s more bad news for sugar lovers.
After nine years of research, molecular biologists in Belgium have discovered that sugars stimulate tumour growth.
Their results, published Friday in the journal Nature Communications, help explain a puzzle oncologists have encountered for decades — and may offer some new, diet-based cancer-fighting solutions.
Most non-cancerous cells in the body get their energy by aerobic respiration, a process that involves breaking down digested food into usable, energy-rich molecules through a series of chemical processes that requires oxygen, then releasing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. But not cancer cells. Even when ample oxygen is available to break down glucose and use it as fuel, cancer cells would rather get energy from fermenting sugar, which has a lower energy yield than the normal chemical reactions cells use. This phenomenon is called the ‘Warburg effect’.
The researchers behind the new study observed yeast cells in the lab, and found that their fermentation process — the same one that cancer cells prefer — actually stimulates tumour growth.
Their findings suggest that the most common cancer-causing genes, called Ras proteins, fuel aggressive tumours with their sugar intake. In short, sugar “awakens” existing cancer cells, making them multiply and expand rapidly, according to these scientists.
“The hyperactive sugar consumption of cancerous cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth” lead study author and Belgian molecular biologist Johan Thevelein, a professor at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, wrote in a press release.
Biologists believe this new understanding of how sugar and cancer interact has “sweeping consequences” for further research. Previous studies have suggested that cancer treatments might be able to exploit the cells’ sweet tooth with targeted therapies, and these researchers think their findings could help oncologists create new, tailor-made diet strategies for cancer patients as well.
The scientists caution that there’s more work to do though, since they’re still not sure what causes the cancer cells to act this way.
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