Scientists at Yale Cancer Center in the US have uncovered the workings of a metabolic pathway or “gauge” that lets cancer cells detect when they have enough nutrients around them to grow.
The researchers hope that drugs designed to turn down the gauge may eventually aid in treating many forms of cancer.
“The cancer cell has an unlimited appetite for nutrients,” said Xiaoyong Yang, Associate Professor at Yale Cancer Center and senior author of the study.
Xiaoyong Yang”But in many parts of the body, especially for solid tumours, nutrients and oxygen are often limited, so the cell has to make a decision to grow or survive.
We have shown how the cell adapts to its microenvironment, detecting nutrient availability to make this decision.”
Yang and his colleagues studied the role of a process called O-GlcNAc protein modification in cancer metabolism.
O-GlcNAc modification alters the function of proteins by attaching certain kinds of sugar molecules and is thought to generally act as a nutrient sensor for the cell.
“We were interested in this modification because it is a common feature across many types of cancer,” Yang noted.
The team began by examining a wide range of human cancer tissue samples for signs of O-GlcNAc modification, including levels of expression for the OGT and OGA enzymes.
They found that both OGT and OGA are expressed at higher levels in many cancers than in normal tissues.
Their findings were published in the journal Oncogene.