PhotoResearchers from St. Louis University have formulated a new theory on how to treat a wide variety of cancers. Unlike other methods, which usually target specific genes and mutations, this research is investigating cancer cell metabolism, and attempting to shut down the energy that these cancerous cells need in order to multiply.

Metabolism, at its core, is a living thing’s ability to use energy. All types of cancer affect this process by intensifying it to extreme levels. As a result, cancerous cells grow at an incredible rate and the tissues surrounding these cells die.

Targeting the energy source

The goal of cancer cells is to divide and grow as quickly as possible. There are many ways that they can do this on a molecular level, but scientists have found that they do have preferences.

“Cancer cells look for metabolic pathways to find the parts to grow and divide. If they don’t have the parts, they just die,” said Thomas Burris, who is the chair of pharmacology and physiology at Saint Louis University. One way in which cancer cells look to grow is by using glucose as an energy source. This preference is called the Warburg effect, or glycolysis.

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

Burris and his team have hypothesized that if you can target the Warburg effect and lipogenesis, then you could stop cancer cells from having the tools they need to grow. If it is proven to be viable, this research could be useful for treating a broad range of cancers.

“Targeting cancer metabolism has become a hot area over the past few years, though the idea is not new,” said Burris.

Effective without side effects

Burris and his team created compounds that affect a receptor that regulates fat synthesis in cells. One compound, named SR9243, started as an anti-cholesterol drug. It effectively inhibits cells so that they cannot create their own fat. This effectively shuts down the process of lipogenesis.

SR9243 also suppresses abnormal glucose consumption in cells, which is the preferred fuel source for cancerous cells. So, by regulating lipogenesis and the Warburg pathway, this new drug has the capacity to destroy cancer cells or turn them into more normal cells.

Normal cells do not need excess glucose, and they can bring in fat from outside of themselves to survive, so SR9243 only affects cancer cells. It also proven to be very safe to use. It does not cause weight loss, liver toxicity, or inflammation, which are side effects that other cancer treatments are known to cause.

Positive results

Testing of the drug has yielded positive results so far. Scientists have applied it to cultured cancer cells and in human tumor cells that have been grown in animal models.  “[The drug] worked very well on lung, prostate, and colorectal cancers, and it worked to a lesser degree in ovarian and pancreatic cancers,” said Burris.

SR9243 also appears to work well with other chemotherapy drugs. When combined, it increased both its own and the other drugs’ effectiveness in fighting cancer. The full study has been published in Cancer Cell. 

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