Cancer’s sweet tooth has a new weakness
Tumours are addicts. They suck up, and smash apart, molecule after molecule of a sugar called glucose, releasing the energy they need to grow and divide in a dangerous, erratic way. This addiction to glucose is such a defining feature of cancer cells that cancer can be detected through imaging techniques that spot the sugar feeding-frenzy in diseased parts of the body.
Now, thanks to research made possible by the supporters of Worldwide Cancer Research, Professor Kevin Ryan at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow has uncovered a simple way to disrupt the way cancer cells get their energy from glucose. And counterintuitively, it involves feeding them sugar.
“Mannose is a naturally occurring sugar that is highly related to glucose and we found that mannose could dramatically repress the growth of certain cancer cell types, but not others,” said Professor Ryan.
“We found that mannose doesn’t interfere with the uptake of glucose in tumour cells but interferes with how the glucose is metabolised once inside the cell – disrupting how cancer cells generate energy from glucose or use it to manufacture building blocks that the cells use to grow and divide”.
Importantly, the study showed that the size of tumours in mice with cancer were significantly decreased when treated with mannose and chemotherapy, either alone or in combination. While either treatment alone was able to reduce tumour size, the effect was enhanced when both treatments were given in combination.
“What we need to see now is if there’s feasibility to use mannose in humans with cancer. We need to know which tumours will respond so we can work out which patients would benefit. So we need to do more pre-clinical work looking at the effects of mannose on specific cancers before ultimately taking this forward into clinical trials.”
“Although we haven’t done the clinical studies yet to know if mannose is therapeutically beneficial to humans, we could envisage in the future that this sugar could be used to counteract the glucose addiction of tumours. Perhaps with more research we could see mannose given in combination with chemotherapy to somehow boost the effect of standard treatments.”
One other important finding from the team’s study was that mice that had their drinking water supplemented with a high level of mannose seemed to be less likely to develop tumours without having any negative impact on the health of the animals. However, Professor Ryan is quick to dismiss any claim that mannose could ward off cancer in humans:
“Mannose is a normal component of our diet so people may be wondering if consuming foods that are high in mannose might protect them from cancer. This is not the case based on our data. The amount of mannose we consume in our diet is far less than what we used in our study. So far we have only looked at this effect in cells and in mice and we do not yet know how this will translate to people”.
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