The Key to Fighting Cancer? Knowing What Makes A Cancer Cell Tick.


Peter Attia from the Eating Academy has an interesting new post about advancements in treating cancer:

cancer cells almost exclusively utilize glucose to make ATP without the use of their mitochondria.

He then asks the question:

So, can this be exploited to treat or even prevent cancer?

It’s an interesting read and goes into detail about how cancer cells are different from regular cells.  The one trait all cancer cells have in common is they utilize glucose differently than normal cells.

The explanation is difficult to go into without using a bunch of technical jargon, but it’s almost as if cancer cells stop caring about being able to use energy efficiently and narrow mindedly use a less effective form of energy processing, despite having the capacity to do more.

The official term is called The Warburg Effect.

Normal cells use lots of oxygen to produce energy and they do it using their mitochondria, which makes a lot of fuel.  Cancers skip this entirely, and only use glucose to make fuel outside the mitochondria through a process called glycolysis

To anyone who studies cell biology, this is really weird.  Why does cancer cause the body to pre-emptively skimp on energy, the currency of life?

Here are some possible explanations:

1).  Unlike normal cells, cancer cells aren’t optimizing for energy production.  It actually doesn’t take a lot of fuel for a cell to replicate itself, and so ATP (fuel) isn’t a concern for a cell that’s constantly in the growth phase.  Instead, they’re acting like a vacuum sucking up as much raw material as possible into the cell to promote more growth, efficiency be damned.

2).  Cancer cells have broken DNA, and broken DNA means their mitochondria no longer work the way they’re supposed to, and their inability to metabolize glucose normally is a byproduct of this defect.

3).  Cancer cells, for whatever reason, are starved of oxygen in their early phases and processing glucose without oxygen is an adaptation necessary for their survival.  The condition of not having enough oxygen is called hypoxia, 

However you slice it the end result is the same: what makes cancer cells fundamentally different than normal ones is how they process energy.  Normal cells take fat, sugar, and protein and gradually break them down into their constituent parts and shuttle them through your mitochondria and extract every last drop of energy they can possibly get.   Cancer cells only use glucose and cram it into this inefficient, primitive process that’s 1/9th as effective.

If cancer is primarily a defect of energy utiliziation, this means it might just be another form of metabolic syndrome.  That could be good news.  It’d mean the same broad, simple strategies people use to prevent weight gain and diabetes apply to cancer as well.

The bad news is that  the same, broad, simple strategies that are tied into other chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are devilishly hard to overcome if you have a spouse, children, job, or lifestyle that doesn’t make your long term risk of disease as its first priority.

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