Way back in the 1920s, a German scientist by the name of Otto Warburg reported to the world that cancer cells metabolize sugars in different ways than normal healthy cells. While such a discovery may not seem particularly momentous, this near century-old discovery is continuing to prove its importance by opening the door to a wide number of potentially effective new cancer therapies.
Warburg’s discovery has already resulted in dramatic cancer treatment breakthroughs – modern-day PET-CT scans help pinpoint tumors by highlighting locations in the body that are high in metabolic activity. Now, scientists are once again revisiting the topic of cancer cell metabolism as they search for new ways to not only diagnose the disease, but fight it as well.
As a recent Harvard Medical School study suggests, a cancer cell’s ability to maximize sugar metabolism is likely a critical factor in the disease’s ability to rapidly divide and spread throughout the body. Indeed, the Harvard study concluded that cancer cells use less chemical energy during cell division, and still manage to over-produce resources necessary for new cell growth.
Similar studies have suggested that augmentation to a healthy cell’s metabolism function is critical for cell mutations.
As a result of cancer’s strong ties to sugar metabolism, researchers are hopeful that starving cancer cells of important enzymes that are necessary for processing sugar can shut off cancer growth.
While the line of research is still in its infancy, a groundswell of support is currently in the works. Recently, Agios Pharmaceuticals raised $33 million for the specific purpose of studying metabolic functions. Additionally, the American Association for Cancer Research recently held a 4-day meeting devoted entirely to the topic.
Cancer metabolism is seen as a promising path due to its wide-sweeping occurrence. As it turns out, there are very few commonalities shared between different types of cancers that can be effectively targeted for broad treatment purposes. However, it appears that sugar metabolism is a key component of cancer growth among the majority of cancer types.
While it is still too soon, and perhaps overly optimistic, to suggest that disrupting cancer metabolism may be the breakthrough necessary for curing cancer, the field remains promising. Agios has already identified an enzyme that is necessary for cancer metabolic functions. Presently, they are working to develop a drug that blocks this enzyme without harming normal cell production.