Cancer Cells' Diet Determines Aggressiveness

Knowing what cancer cells eat could lead to better, personalized treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Just as the old saying goes, "You are what you eat," scientists have now learned that what cancer cells eat predicts how aggressive they are. These new findings can be used to offer better and more personalized cancer treatment.

Researchers at Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University have found that cancer cells that feed off ketones and lactate are most likely to cause breast cancer to return, spread or lead to death. Authors say this approach can now be used on virtually any type of human cancer cell.

"Knowing what cancer cells are eating predicts how aggressive they are."

“Tumors that are using the body’s own nutrients (lactate and ketones) as 'fuel' have a poorer outcome for patient survival, a behavior that now can be used to predict if a patient is at a high-risk for recurrence [return] or metastasis [spread],” explained Michael P. Lisanti, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University .

“This is getting to the heart of personalized cancer medicine. Now, we have identified a panel of biomarkers [substances that show the presence of disease] that directly links cancer metabolism with targeted cancer therapy,” he said.

Ubaldo Martinez-Outschoorn, M.D., of the department of Medical Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University, and the lead author of the paper, says this information can be used to better diagnose and treat cancer patients from the start.

This strategy could be used to direct which patients receive a particular “tailored” therapy. According to the authors, these findings also suggest that high-risk cancer patients can be treated with anti-cancer therapies, including antioxidant metformin, a drug that is currently used to treat diabetes.

The researchers propose that this new approach be called “Metabolo-Genomics” since it uses both cell metabolism and gene profiling.

Dr. Lisanti and his colleagues believe that tumor metabolism is the new big picture for understanding how cancers return and spread.

Findings were reported in the journal Cell Cycle.

The Study

  • High-energy metabolites have long been suspected to “fuel” aggressive tumor cell behavior
  • The researchers used this theory to generate a gene expression signature from genetically identical cancer cells
  • One cell group of human breast cancer cells was fed a diet of high-energy metabolites - ketones and lactate
  • These lactate- and ketone-induced “gene signatures” then predicted recurrence, metastasis, and poor survival
  • It appears that these metabolites increase “stemness” in cancer cells, which drives poorer outcomes
  • Lactate and ketones were found to promote the growth of normal stem cells, which has important  applications for stem cell transplantation and for a host of different human diseases
Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 29, 2011
Last Updated:
April 30, 2011