Cancer cells feed on sugar-free diet

January 10, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- Cancer cells have been long known to have a “sweet tooth,” using vast amounts of glucose for energy and for building blocks for cell replication.  

Now, a study by a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere shows that lymph gland cells called B cells can use glutamine in the absence of for cell replication and survival, particularly under low-oxygen conditions, which are common in tumors.

Writing in the Jan. 4, 2012, edition of Cell Metabolism, Anne Le, M.D., and a team of investigators collaborating with the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, say the finding is critical for developing innovative cancer therapies because it offers “proof of concept” evidence that curbing the growth of B cell cancers can be accomplished by inhibiting a glutamine enzyme called glutaminase.

Le notes that although little is known about glutamine’s role in the growth of B cell cancer, the amino acid circulates in the blood at the highest level among the 20 amino acids that do so.

The tricarboxylic acid cycle (TCA or Krebs cycle) is classically regarded as a pathway for glucose oxidation.  However, the experiments by Le and the team show that B cells oxidize glutamine when glucose is absent.

 The study also found that when oxygen is scarce, there is enhanced conversion of glutamine to glutathione, an important agent for controlling the accumulation of oxygen-containing chemically reactive molecules that cause damage to normal cells.

When the investigators used a glutaminase inhibitor, cancerous growth of B cells was stopped in petri dishes.

“The flexibility of the TCA cycle in using both glutamine and glucose pathways may be important for cancer cells to proliferate and survive, especially under the low-oxygen and nutrient-deprived conditions often encountered in the tumor microenvironment,” says Le.

Now, perhaps, scientists can exploit that survival strategy to stop cancer, according to former Johns Hopkins scientist Chi Dang, M.D., now at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “A broader and deeper understanding of cancer cell metabolism and ’ability to reprogram biochemical pathways under metabolic stress can be a rich ground for therapeutic approaches targeting tumor metabolism,” he says.  

In addition to Le, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, other researchers from Johns Hopkins who participated in this study include Sminu Bose, Arvin Gouw, Joseph Barbi, Takashi Tsukamoto, Camilo J. Rojas and Barbara Slusher. The Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, where Tsukamoto, Rojas and Slusher are faculty, is pursuing the development of new glutaminase inhibitor drugs.

Explore further: Cancer cells 'reprogram' energy needs to grow and spread, study suggests

Related Stories

What's Feeding Cancer Cells?

February 16, 2009

Cancer cells need a lot of nutrients to multiply and survive. While much is understood about how cancer cells use blood sugar to make energy, not much is known about how they get other nutrients. Now, researchers at the Johns ...

New study says molecule can starve cancer cells

September 17, 2010

While overcoming an addiction is usually the healthy choice, cancer cells' addiction to the amino acid glutamine is key to their vitality and growth. But Cornell researchers have discovered a molecule that can block cancer ...

Compound that blocks sugar pathway slows cancer cell growth

November 18, 2010

Scientists at Johns Hopkins have identified a compound that could be used to starve cancers of their sugar-based building blocks. The compound, called a glutaminase inhibitor, has been tested on laboratory-cultured, sugar-hungry ...

How cancer cells get by on a starvation diet

November 21, 2011

Cancer cells usually live in an environment with limited supplies of the nutrients they need to proliferate — most notably, oxygen and glucose. However, they are still able to divide uncontrollably, producing new cancer ...

New bioengineering prof uncovers cancer metabolism insights

November 22, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Research from a new member of the bioengineering faculty at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering demonstrates that our cells metabolize nutrients in a very different manner than has long been thought. ...

Recommended for you

Molecularly shutting down cancer cachexia

August 30, 2016

Healthy fat tissue is essential for extended survival in the event of tumor-induced wasting syndrome (cachexia). In Nature Medicine, researchers at Helmholtz Zentrum München show that selective manipulation of an enzyme ...

Radiologists detect breast cancer in 'blink of an eye'

August 29, 2016

A new study by investigators at Brigham and Women's Hospital in collaboration with researchers at the University of York and Leeds in the UK and MD Andersen Cancer Center in Texas puts to the test anecdotes about experienced ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.