For years, nutritionists and medical professionals have touted the benefits a low- or no-sugar diet can have on a person’s general health. While many experts have said that limiting sugar intake is one way to keep cancer at bay, there has been no definitive study proving this. Now, after a nine-year study, researchers report sugar actually stimulates cancer growth.
A team of Belgian researchers looked at the relationship between cancer and sugar, specifically the Warburg effect, that suggests tumors convert significantly higher amounts of sugar into lactate compared to healthy tissues. While the Warburg effect is a well-known phenomenon, it was unclear whether it is a cause or symptom of cancer.
They found that the Warburg effect actually stimulates tumor growth. This led the researchers to say that this study provides evidence for “a positive correlation between sugar and cancer.” They also said the results “may have far-reaching impacts on tailor-made diets for cancer patients.”
In 2008, the team took to the lab to observe fermenting yeast cells, which act like cancer cells, to understand the connection between Ras protein activity and sugar metabolism in yeast. During the fermenting process they determined that the cancer cells used the fermenting sugar for energy (the Warburg Effect). The researchers concluded that “sugar awakens cancer cells” leading to faster growth.
“Our research reveals how the hyperactive sugar consumption of cancerous cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth, ” said lead study author and Belgian molecular biologist Johan Thevelein, a professor at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in an Oct. 13 press release. “Thus, it is able to explain the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness.”
Expert Insight“This link between sugar and cancer has sweeping consequences.”
The researchers caution that while this research has “led to a new very valuable scientific hypothesis” there is still much more to do, including initiating clinical trials. The finding could drive research to targeted therapy developed to intercept the sugars.
“Our results provide a foundation for future research in this domain, which can now be performed with a much more precise and relevant focus,” said Thevelein.
Read the full study in the Oct. 13 issue of Nature Communications.