Beating cancer by removing sugar from your diet is not a new concept. As we reported recently, leading biochemist Dr. Otto Wartburg became a vocal advocate of eliminating sugar and starving cancerous tumors of their primary fuel source nearly a century ago. Removing sugar as a preventative step was just as effective, he surmised, as cancer was caused by the body’s nonoxidative breakdown of glucose. Fast-forward to 2013 and a new study has indicated that blocking dietary sugar can reduce tumor development risk and progression of cancer cells.
The research comes to us from the Icahn School of Medicine and was published in the journal Cell. Ross Cagan, PhD, Professor of Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Mount Sinai, developed a cancer model in the fruit fly to help determine how cancer occurs and grows, specifically studying the effects of diet and insulin resistance on cancer progression.
In the past, research has linked metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes to an increased risk of pancreatic, liver, breast, and colon cancers. This correlation was puzzling because cells use glucose (sugar) for energy and to grow, so in diseases like diabetes– where the body is an insulin-resistant environment– it wasn’t clear how said tumors could grow so aggressively. One would assume, in other words, that the tumor cells would stagnate.
“Previous research has established a strong correlation between metabolic diseases and pancreatic, breast, liver, and colon cancers, but we have not determined how tumors grow so aggressively in this environment if they do not have the energy provided by glucose,” said Dr. Cagan. “Using our fruit fly model, we discovered how tumors overcome insulin resistance in the body and turn metabolic dysfunction to their advantage.”
For the study, Dr. Cagan and his team engineered fruit flies to express Ras and Src, two important oncogenes, resulting in the development of small head tumors. After feeding the flies a high-sugar diet promoting insulin resistance, they found that high dietary sugar acts together with Ras and Src to increase insulin sensitivity specifically in tumor cells. As MedicalNewsToday reports, “By ramping up signaling of an important pathway called Wingless/Wnt, they increased tumor cells’ insulin receptors to further promote insulin sensitivity. This cascade of activity changed these small, weak tumors and caused them to begin growing aggressively”.
Using these newly identified drug targets (glucose, the RAs/Src oncogenes, and Wingless/Wnt signaling), the researchers identified compounds that could block the process. Using three different drug treatments, the team attacked the three different targets. Together, they “substantially reduced tumor size and progression.”
“Our study shows that sugar activates oncogenes in the tumor, which then promote insulin sensitivity, meaning that the exorbitant glucose levels in the blood pour into the tumor, having nowhere else to go in the insulin-resistant body,” wrote Cagan. “We have identified a three-drug combination that stops this signaling activity and tumor growth in its tracks, without affecting normal cell function.”
Three drugs though? While the research did show positive results with the three-drug treatment, it offered even more insight into how cancer can be prevented. Obesity and type 2 diabetes are preventable lifestyle diseases. These are conditions we control. And if they are creating an environment that fosters prolific tumor growth, we can use that knowledge to combat both cancer and the metabolic disorders that increase the risk of cancer.