Cancer cells have been known, for close to 100 years, to have altered metabolism compared to normal cells. Cancer cells metabolise nutrients at high rates and indeed the metabolism of glucose in tumours to form lactic acid was first reported by the Nobel Prize winner Otto Warburg in the 1920’s. Only in recent years, however, have scientists focused on developing drugs to specifically target distinct processes in cancer cell metabolism.
Cancers require an increased blood supply to deliver oxygen and nutrients to grow, and a major focus of cancer research has been on how to reduce the cancer’s ability to make new blood vessels. However, until recently, very little attention has been focused on the idea of blocking the cancer cell’s own ability to increase its nutrient uptake. Normal cells use signals to regulate the amount of nutrients they receive so they only take up the nutrients that they need. In cancer cells these signals can be altered, facilitating increased nutrient uptake required to fuel cancer cell growth.
Associate Professor Jeff Holst’s laboratory has discovered that a number of these metabolic processes are dramatically increased in triple-negative breast cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma, and may be responsible for increasing nutrient metabolism in cancer cells. As these metabolic processes are selectively increased in cancer cells and not in many normal cells, new therapies targeting these processes should be better tolerated and result in less side effects than conventional chemotherapeutic treatments.