Scientists from Belgium report that they have completed ground breaking research regarding the relationship between sugar and cancer. They discovered that yeast containing high glucose levels greatly stimulates proteins that frequently mutate in human tumors, causing cells to develop quicker. This discovery, which was recently published in the Nature Communications journal, attempts to highlight how cancer spreads.
Typically, cancerous cells generate energy in a different way to healthy cells — they utilize a process involving the fermentation of sugar into lactate, instead of standard respiration. No cells in the body can survive without sugar. However, cancerous cells appear to need more sugar than normal cells.
In 2008, Wim Versées, Veerle Janssens and Johan Thevelein began examining the relationship between sugar and cancer to gain a greater insight into what is known as the Warburg effect. This is where tumor cells generate energy by rapidly breaking down sugar not present in healthy cells. This energy is used to fuel the growth of tumors. For a long time, scientists have wondered whether this process affects how quickly tumors spread.
To carry out their tests, the researchers focused their attention on yeast, which generates energy from sugar through fermentation — similar to cancerous cells. In addition, yeast has ‘Ras’ proteins in it, which are present in cancer. One role that Ras proteins play in the body is to regulate the growth of cells. Sometimes, the genes controlling these proteins mutate, which causes them to become constantly active. This leads to an overabundance of cell development, and therefore the unregulated spread of cancerous cells. Therefore, with the help of yeast, the scientists examined interactions between high sugar metabolism and Ras.
According to Thevelein, who works at KU Leuven University, this research explains how tumor aggressiveness is affected by how strong the Warburg effect is. Purportedly, this correlation between cancer and sugar has broad ramifications. The results from this study offer a starting point for further research into this area, which can be done now in a more relevant and precise way.
Previously, it was not known if the Warburg effect was a cancer symptom, or if it affected tumor development. Although this research is a significant discovery however, it is not a breakthrough in medicine. Also, it does not indicate whether cancer can be treated by consuming a reduced sugar diet. Thevelein concedes that the research is insufficient to establish how the Warburg effect is caused. More studies are required to discover whether yeast cells can provide the answer to this.
Cancer researcher Victoria Stevens, who works for the American Cancer Society, did not take part in the research. Nonetheless, while commending the efforts of the scientists, she said that their findings only shed limited light on energy production via glucose breakdown. Needless to say, it is just the beginning of a lengthy process. The scientists may have shown a possible way that the Warburg effect can cause cancer, however they are far from being able to say that it does.
Scientists at KU Leuven, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and VIB performed the research. The life science institute VIB works with several universities, like KU Leuven, and receives funding from the Flemish authorities.