How sugar feeds cancer and makes it harder to treat

Scientists have finally identified how sugar feeds cancer in a new research paper which has been hailed as a ‘breakthrough’.

The study, published today, explains why cancer cells rapidly break down sugars without producing much energy – a phenomenon discovered in 1920, dubbed the ‘Warburg effect’.

Until now, it hasn’t been clear whether the effect was a symptom of cancer, or a cause.

But a nine-year joint research project conducted by a coalition of Dutch universities has shown that sugar naturally connects with a gene called ‘ras’, which is essential to each cancer cell’s ability to survive.

This connection traps cancer so forcefully that cells are powerless to expel it, creating a ‘vicious cycle’ that stimulates the cancer and persistently metabolizes the sugar. 

The finding published in Nature Communications could have implications for cancer patients’ diets, and for non-sufferers it sheds further light on the dangers of sugar.

The Dutch study explains why cancer cells rapidly break down sugars without producing much energy – a phenomenon discovered in 1920, dubbed the ‘Warburg effect’

‘Our research reveals how the hyperactive sugar consumption of cancerous cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth,’ said lead author Professor Johan Thevelein, a molecular biologist at VIB and KU Leuven.

‘Thus, it is able to explain the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness. 

‘This link between sugar and cancer has sweeping consequences. 

‘Our results provide a foundation for future research in this domain, which can now be performed with a much more precise and relevant focus.’

However, they still have no idea why the aggressive disease hasn’t evolved out of this fruitless process.

The research began in 2008.

The objective was to shed light on the Warburg effect, which was discovered by Otto Warburg, a German physicist, in 1920. 

Dr Warburg found that convert significantly higher amounts of sugar into lactate compared to healthy tissues.

For some reason, healthy cells gain significantly energy from sugar than cancer cells do.

Dr Warburg wasn’t able to explain this conundrum – nor was any other researcher in the years since. 

That is why this research paper has been lauded as such a significant step in understanding cancer. 

The researchers studied yeast, which contain the same ‘ras’ gene as cancer cells. 

Professor Johan Thevelein explained: ‘We observed in yeast that sugar degradation is linked via the intermediate fructose 1,6-biophosphate to the activation of Ras proteins, which stimulate the multiplication of both yeast and cancer cells.

‘It is striking that this mechanism has been conserved throughout the long evolution of yeast cell to human.

‘The main advantage of using yeast was that our research was not affected by the additional regulatory mechanisms of mammalian cells, which conceal crucial underlying processes. 

‘We were thus able to target this process in yeast cells and confirm its presence in mammalian cells. 

‘However, the findings are not sufficient to identify the primary cause of the Warburg effect. 

‘Further research is needed to find out whether this primary cause is also conserved in yeast cells.’