When medical professionals are targeting a patient’s cancer, the goal is first to eliminate the cancer and if that isn't possible get the cancer to stop growing. The spread of cancer cells from one area of the body to another, a process called metastasis, is what increases the risk of death in cancer patients. While each form of cancer is different in how it spreads and each patient is different, researchers around the globe are furiously trying to figure out what causes some cancers to grow out of control, and what, if anything, can shut down that growth.
One of the factors in the growth of cancer is a bit of a double-edged sword. The amino acid glutamine is is somewhat of a conundrum. Having adequate amounts of it is beneficial to nitrogen balance, the gut microbiome and our immune system. It’s a positive in many ways for staying healthy. Conversely, it’s also known that cancer cells live for glutamine. It’s known to be a strong catalyst in the grown of tumors. Bascially, there is no part of cancer growth and metabolism that isn’t spurred on by glutamine. It provides fuel in the form of nitrogen so cancer cells can replicate. It enhances protein and nucleotide synthesis and it can thwart the body’s own immune defense systems, resulting in a target rich environment in which cancer can flourish.
So, the simple answer would seem to find a way to starve the cancer cells of glutamine and stop their growth. As it turns out, that isn’t so simple. Researchers at the Centenary Institute in Sydney Australia have been working on the problem and may have a breakthrough on the way. Professor Jeff Holst is stated recently that his lab has made some significant strides in finding a way to mediate the glutamine factor in cancer metastasis. He explained, “We have known for 100 years that cancer cells take up nutrients and use them differently to normal cells but we haven’t been able to target that. Cancer cells have found ways to use glutamine to fuel their growth and they become addicted to it, they are so dependent on it, that if you take it away from the cells they die” In the course of this research, they have found new drugs that could potentially shut down the glutamine fueling of tumors, and leave healthy cells intact.
Holst, who is the Head of the Origins of Cancer Program at the Institute collaborated with colleagues at Sydney University and discovered an important role for a protein involved in the metabolism of certain cancer cells that is crucial for spurring the grown of cancer cells. In a press release about the a new drug that his team is working on Holst stated, “If we are able to specifically block the supply of nutrients to cancer cells by inhibiting the function of this protein, we can essentially ‘starve’ the cells and stop them from growing.” The team has also
been able to identify molecules that can stop this protein in its tracks and this information is now being developed to create new drugs.
The Institute and the researchers at the University of Sydney will be working with a privately held biotechnology company called MetabloQ Pty Ltd which is focused on translating the results of Associate Professor Holst’s research into drugs for testing in clinical trials. The video below talks more about the important work being done on the cancer-glutamine connection, check it out.