Cancer’s Sweet Tooth

Ingredients: Sugar CubesWho doesn’t love a sweet treat? Turns out even cancer cells have a penchant for sugar. Sugar serves as an energy source for any cell to grow and replicate – and cancer cells are no different. But here’s where the cancer cell-sugar relationship gets more interesting: cancer-fighting immune cells also need sugar to function. If cancer cells use up all the sugar, cancer-fighting cells can end up disarmed.

The Sugar Tug-of-War

  • Cancer cells have a complex relationship with sugar:
  • Tumors tend to grow near areas of dense blood vessels to provide ready access to blood sugar.
  • Tumors can even reroute blood and increase blood sugar levels to their advantage.
  • When tumors preferentially use up limited sugar resources, the body’s immune cells are deprived this energy source.
  • Cancer-fighting immune cells, called T cells, use sugar to produce interferon gamma which destroys cancer cells.
  • When T cells can’t produce interferon gamma (due to limited access to sugar), cancer cells can more readily proliferate.

So, as you can see, when cancer cells use up all the sugar resources for themselves, it leaves the body’s defenses at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, dishing up a large bowl of ice cream isn’t the answer. Scientists haven’t been sure how to limit sugar to cancer cells while preserving T cells’ access to the sugar.

This is where new research from Chih-Hao Chang, Ph.D. and fellow researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis comes into the picture. In their research, appearing in the June 6th issue of the journal Cell, they found that T cells that don’t have access to sugar can use a different pathway of energy production. Even better: this alternative pathway can’t be used by cancer cells.

These researchers hope that this discovery could lead to new treatments for fighting tumors by enhancing T cell’s cancer-fighting abilities while simultaneously depriving cancer cells of the nutrients they need to grow and spread.

Stephen C Vogt, PharmD
President and CEO BioPlus SP

Chang C, Curtis JD, Maggi LB, et al. Posttranscriptional control of T cell effector function by aerobic glycolysis. Cell 2013;153(6):1239-51.
Singh A. Cancer cells more than just proliferate, overuse blood sugar to evade immune system. Medical Daily Jun 6, 2013.
Tumors disable immune cells by using up sugar. Newswise June 4, 2013.

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