An Old Idea, Revived: Starve Cancer to Death

An Old Idea, Revived: Starve Cancer to Death. By Sam Apple. In the early 20th century, the German biochemist Otto Warburg believed that tumors could be treated by disrupting their source of energy. His idea was dismissed for decades — until now.

Warburg [found that] the cancer cells fueled their growth by swallowing up enormous amounts of glucose (blood sugar) and breaking it down without oxygen. The result made no sense. Oxygen-fueled reactions are a much more efficient way of turning food into energy, and there was plenty of oxygen available for the cancer cells to use. But when Warburg tested additional tumors, including ones from humans, he saw the same effect every time. The cancer cells were ravenous for glucose.

Warburg’s discovery, later named the Warburg effect, is estimated to occur in up to 80 percent of cancers. It is so fundamental to most cancers that a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which has emerged as an important tool in the staging and diagnosis of cancer, works simply by revealing the places in the body where cells are consuming extra glucose. In many cases, the more glucose a tumor consumes, the worse a patient’s prognosis. …

Warburg became convinced that the Warburg effect occurs because cells are unable to use oxygen properly and that this damaged respiration is, in effect, the starting point of cancer.

The discovery of DNA in 1953 led to cancer being regarded as a disease governed by mutated genes. But that led nowhere, and attention is turning back to the Warburg effect.

Even James Watson, one of the fathers of molecular biology, is convinced that targeting metabolism is a more promising avenue in current cancer research than gene-centered approaches.At his office at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, Watson, 88, sat beneath one of the original sketches of the DNA molecule and told me that locating the genes that cause cancer has been “remarkably unhelpful” — the belief that sequencing your DNA is going to extend your life “a cruel illusion.” …

“I think there’s no doubt that insulin is pro-cancer,” Watson says, with respect to the link between obesity, diabetes and cancer. “It’s as good a hypothesis as we have now.”

hat-tip Matthew