Cancer cells speed up metabolism by using more glucose as food and this scan is able to spot tumors by highlighting glucose-rich cancer cells.

Cancer is classified as the most notorious and lethal of diseases. Its high fatality rate, ability to come back stronger and devastating effects on patients and their families make it a tough opponent. Many studies are ongoing and looking into how it works, why it happens and most importantly what can be done to stop it.

Most studies turn to genetic causes that can cause cancer and how to stop them. A study led by researchers at St. Louis University (SLU) looked into a principle known as the Warburg effect which explains a common target among all cancers: the energy source.

The Warburg effect takes into account the one process that all living cells require: metabolism. Normal cells have a low rate of using up food (glucose) and produce energy in the powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria, utilizing oxygen.

Cancer cells speed up metabolism by using more glucose as food and bypassing the mitochondria completely. This makes them produce energy even without oxygen resulting in a supercharged rate of growth. In fact their preference for glucose enables the use of PET scan (Positron Emission Topography). This scan is able to spot tumors by highlighting the glucose rich cancer cells.

Basically cancer cells have one motto: grow and divide as fast as possible. And they prefer to do it using certain pathways that give them tools for new cells and energy for rapid growth. And one pathway involves the use of fats.

Dr. Thomas Burris, chair pharmacology and physiology at SLU explained in a press release, “Cancer cells look for metabolic pathways to find the parts to grow and divide. If they don’t have the parts, they just die.

“The Warburg effect ramps up energy use in the form of glucose to make chemicals required for rapid growth and cancer cells in turn ramp up another process, lipogenesis, that lets them make their own fats that they require to rapidly grow.”

Fats provide more energy and thus lipogenesis (fat synthesis) is an important part of cancer cell growth, survival and progression. And this tendency to rely on certain pathways could help kill cancer cells by targeting those very pathways.

A new class of compounds was created by Burris and his colleagues to affect the synthesis of fat. One of the compounds, SR9243, decreases the fat synthesis so cells are unable to make their own fat. This in turn affects the Warburg pathway cutting off the cancer cells energy supply by suppressing high levels of glucose consumption.

Without the necessary energy or parts to make new cells, the cancer cells die. And as the Warburg effect is particular to cancer cells, healthy cells are not affected.

The results shown by the new cancer drugs are promising and no side effects such as liver poisoning, loss of weight or inflammation have been found in the cell cultures and human tumors grown in animal models.

It was found to be effective on lung, colorectal and prostrate cancer. Ovarian and pancreatic cancers were affected but on a lesser degree. It also appears that when used in combination with chemotherapy drugs, the SR9243 increases the effectiveness of those drugs. The research was published in the journal Cancer Cell.