Just like the rest of the body’s cells, cancer cells use glucose (sugar) as food. So preventing the cells from consuming any sugar makes them more sensitive to chemotherapy treatment and can cause them to starve and die. But making that happen is, of course, much easier said than done.
In order to take in sugar molecules, cancer cells use something known as a “sugar transporter” or “membrane protein,” which is sort of like a swinging door in the cell membrane that lets things in and out.
Researchers at Lund University of Pisa studied cancer cells in a laboratory environment. There are 14 known types of sugar transporters that cancer cells use, but the team looked specifically at GLUT1 and its role in acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, to see if they could find a way to stop the sugar transporter from doing its job.
“Membrane proteins are targets of interest in the development of new treatments, and it is commonly known that around half of all drugs on the market today target membrane proteins,” says Karin Lindkvist, lead author and professor in the Department of Cell Biology at Lund University. “There is a lot happening in the cell, and these proteins control what goes in and out of the cell. This particular sugar transporter appears to play a key role, as it is highly effective at helping the cell to take up sugar. It is also why the cancer cells make more of this transporter in order to obtain more energy.”
The teams’ results, published in the journal Haematologica, showed that certain substances were able to impair the function of the sugar transporters, stopping or slowing the sugar uptake in the cells. And when those transporters were blocked, chemotherapy drugs were more effective.
AML is one of the most common forms of leukemia, and it has a high rate of relapse, as well as a poor prognosis. Researchers believe their discovery could improve survival rates and decrease relapse rates. And above all, it’s likely to be applicable to different types of cancers and different types of sugar transporters.
“Our hope is that combining chemotherapy with inhibitors that block the sugar uptake to the cancer cells, can improve the effect of the treatment and thereby cure more patients in the future”, says Anna Hagström, study co-author and senior lecturer at the Division of Clinical Genetics, Lund University.
The research will have to be repeated in both experimental studies and clinical trials before this method can be used on patients. But knowing a method for starving cancer cells is a big step toward being able to stop cancer altogether.