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. The research has been published in the leading academic journal Nature Communications.
This research started in 2008 led by Johan Thevelein (VIB-KU Leuven), Wim Versées (VIB-VUB) and Veerle Janssens (KU Leuven). The focus was the Warburg effect, or the observation that tumors convert significantly higher amounts of sugar into lactate compared to healthy tissues. As one of the most prominent features of cancer cells, this phenomenon has been extensively studied and even used to detect brain tumors.
Previous cancer research focused on mapping out metabolic peculiarities, this study clarifies the link between metabolic deviation and oncogenic potency in cancerous cells.
Prof. Johan Thevelein (VIB-KU Leuven): “Our research reveals how the hyperactive sugar consumption of cancerous cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth. Thus, the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness is explained. Link between sugar and cancer has sweeping consequences. Our results provide a foundation for future research in this domain, which can now be performed with a much relevant focus.”
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 the highly active sugar metabolism in yeast.
Researchers observed in yeast that sugar degradation is linked via the intermediate fructose 1,6-biophosphate to the activation of Ras proteins, which stimulate the multiplication of both yeast and cancer cells.
The main advantage of using yeast was not being affected by the additional regulatory mechanisms of mammalian cells, which conceal crucial underlying processes. Thus, the researchers were able to target this process in yeast cells and confirm its presence in mammalian cells. However, the findings are not sufficient to identify the primary cause of the Warburg effect. Further research is needed to find out whether this primary cause is also conserved in yeast cells.”