A nine-year joint research project, conducted by VIB, KU Leuven, and VUB has led to a crucial breakthrough in cancer research. Scientists have clarified how the Warburg effect, a phenomenon in which cancer cells rapidly break down sugars, stimulates tumor growth. This discovery provides evidence for a positive correlation between sugar and cancer, which can have far-reaching impacts on diets tailored for cancer patients. The research has been published in the leading academic journal Nature Communications.
This project started in 2008 under the leadership of Johan Thevelein (VIB-KU Leuven), Wim Versées (VIB-VUB) and Veerle Janssens (KU Leuven). Its main focus was the Warburg effect, or the observation that tumors convert significantly higher amounts of sugar to lactate compared to healthy tissues. As one of the most prominent characteristics of cancer cells, this phenomenon has been widely studied and even used to detect brain tumors, among other applications. But until now, it had not been clear whether the effect was simply a symptom of cancer or a cause.
Sugar awakens cancer cells
While early research on cancer cell metabolism focused on mapping metabolic peculiarities, this study clarifies the link between metabolic deviation and oncogenic potency in cancer cells.
Prof. Johan Thevelein (VIB-KU Leuven): “Our research reveals how overactive sugar consumption by cancer cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth. Therefore, it is able to explain the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and the aggressiveness of the tumor. This link between sugar and cancer has radical consequences. Our results provide a basis for future research in this area, which can now be carried out with a much more precise and relevant approach ”.
Yeast as an Advantageous Model Organism for Detecting Cancer
Yeast cell research was essential to the discovery, as these cells contain the same 'Ras' proteins commonly found in tumor cells, which can cause cancer in mutated form. Using yeast as a model organism, the research team examined the connection between Ras activity and highly active sugar metabolism in yeast.
Prof. Johan Thevelein (VIB-KU Leuven): “We observed in yeast that sugar degradation is linked through the intermediate fructose 1,6-biophosphate to the activation of Ras proteins, which stimulate the multiplication of yeast and cancer cells. It is striking that this mechanism has been conserved throughout the long evolution of the yeast cell to the human.
“The main advantage of using yeast was that our research was not affected by the additional regulatory mechanisms of mammalian cells, which hide crucial underlying processes. So we were able to direct this process in yeast cells and confirm its presence in mammalian cells. "
VIB (Flanders Institute for Biotechnology)
Original article (in English)