3d rendering of cancer cells
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
May 18, 2024 ·  4 min read

Cancer is Adaptive and Can Switch Sugar for Fatty Acids to Spread Around the Body

All cells need glucose, aka sugar, to survive – including cancer cells, right? That’s what scientists used to think, that is until they took a deep dive into how cancer cells really spread throughout the body so easily. Our understanding of cancer biology and its ability to spread within the human body has now taken a significant leap forward, thanks to this groundbreaking research. This new study reveals how cancer cells can adapt and even switch their preferred energy source to facilitate their spread. This discovery challenges traditional thinking about cancer and its growth mechanisms, opening up new avenues for research and potential treatment strategies.

How Cancer Spreads: The New Research

Dividing cancer cell metastasis division as a disease anatomy concept as a growing malignant tumor on an organ inside the human body as a 3D illustration.
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Recent research has uncovered a crucial change in cancer cells that allows them to spread around the body. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which suggests that cancer cells solely rely on sugar (glucose) as their primary fuel source, scientists have discovered that these adaptive cells can switch to fatty acids to fuel their growth. This metabolic flexibility empowers cancer cells to establish themselves in newly invaded sites where resources such as glucose may be limited. The study, published in Nature Communications and funded by Breast Cancer Now, sheds light on the molecular mechanisms underlying cancer adaptability and spread. (1)

“Cancer cells have to work hard to take root and form a tumor. When tumor cells head on the move to other parts of the body, a process called metastasis, they have to work even harder to adapt to the energy and nutrient sources available to them wherever they find themselves, as well as surviving the journey,” explained Professor Clare Isacke, Professor of Molecular Cell Biology in the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the ICR. “Our study has shown the importance of cancer cell learning how to use different nutrients and energy sources in order to survive.” (2)

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How the Study Was Conducted

Women scientist looking through microscope in laboratory. Young scientist doing some research with dropper chemical double exposure.
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Underpinning this remarkable finding is the identification of a protein called AKR1B10, which plays a pivotal role in enabling cancer cells to adapt and thrive in diverse environments. The research team at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, conducted a comprehensive analysis and found that high levels of AKR1B10 reduce cancer cells’ dependency on sugar while enhancing their ability to utilize fatty acids as an alternative energy source. This metabolic adaptability was further correlated with the cells’ ability to establish themselves in new locations within the body.

What This Means for the Future of Cancer and Cancer Treatment

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The implications of these findings are significant for the future of cancer research and treatment. The identification of AKR1B10 and the understanding of its role in fostering cancer cell adaptability offer a potential pathway for screening breast cancer patients for increased levels of this protein. Such screening may aid in identifying patients at higher risk of metastatic relapse, thus enabling tailored treatment strategies. Furthermore, the study opens doors for the development of novel treatment options that focus on disrupting cancer cells’ ability to utilize fatty acids, potentially reducing relapse rates, as evidenced in experiments on mice.

“This research significantly improves our understanding of cancer cell metabolism and metastatic relapse and could lead to new avenues of exploration for new therapies and treatments for patients with metastatic breast cancer.” said Professor Isacke.

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What This Means for You

Latina woman, fighting breast cancer, wears a pink scarf, and clenches her arms as a survivor fighter
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For individuals and the broader community, this research could hold profound implications for cancer prevention strategies. The discovery of cancer cells’ ability to switch their metabolic preferences signifies a need for a reevaluation of existing prevention and detection approaches. It underscores the need for a holistic understanding of cancer biology, potentially leading to the development of more targeted and effective preventive measures, as well as new cancer screening and detection methods. Moreover, this research contributes to the collective knowledge that can guide personalized treatment approaches and improve patient outcomes in the future.

The Bottom Line

Love, bonding and woman with her mom with cancer hugging, sitting and spending time together. Happy, sweet and sick mature female person embracing her adult daughter with a smile in outdoor garden.
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The recent breakthrough in cancer research, revealing the adaptive nature of cancer cells and their ability to switch energy sources, marks a significant milestone in our understanding of cancer biology. This discovery not only sheds light on the intricate survival mechanisms of cancer cells but also presents new opportunities for the development of advanced screening methods and targeted treatment strategies. As we continue to unravel the complexities of cancer spread and adaptability, these insights hold tremendous promise for reshaping future cancer research and treatment paradigms.

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  1. Metabolic adaptability in metastatic breast cancer by AKR1B10-dependent balancing of glycolysis and fatty acid oxidation.” Nature. Antoinette van Weverwijk, et al. June 2019
  2. Cancer Cells Switch Sugar for Fatty Acids to Spread Around the Body.” Technelogy Networks. July 19, 2019