Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cancer cells can be tricked with poisonous sugar

There is a lot of research being performed on treating cancer. The trend is to find specific therapies that only target cancer cells, and leave healthy cells alone. Scientists from Kyushy University Medical School propose a new idea: treatment with sugar. By coupling sugar molecules with a specific drug, cancer cells can be forced to kill themselves with relatively high selectivity. Apparently it works so well that the researchers hope to start clinical trials soon.

How does it work
Cancer cells are highly active because they grow unusually fast. Therefore, they need a lot of glucose, which is a sugar and the body's main fuel. Because of their increased activity, they are more susceptible to changes in glucose concentration. This mechanism is used by the sugar therapy which combined with a drug that, once inside the cell, induces cell suicide. Cancer cells are forced to kill themselves after the drug that is attached to the sugar uncouples two molecules. One of them, dubbed BAK is able to trigger a mechanism that results in suicide.

Efficacy and resistance
A typical feature of cancer cells is that they develop resistance against certain anti-cancer drugs. However, the need for sugar is a very basic feature of all cells, and that is not very likely to change. Therefore the uptake of poisonous sugar is less likely to be blocked than a synthesized drug.

Side effects
Most cancer drugs have side effects. Mostly, chemotherapeutic agents are associated with adverse affects, mainly because they are poisonous to all cells, with cancer cells being slightly more affected. The same is likely to hold true for the sugar-based therapy. All cells need glucose. However, there is a huge difference between the glucose needs of a tumour compared with normal tissue. Therefore, the dose can probably be lowered enough to leave normal tissues intact. It is of course necessary to proof this during clinical trials. It is known that we possess tissue that also has a very high demand for glucose: the brain. There is a barrier however, that limits molecules from entering the circulation of the brain. It is a protective mechanism to prevent harmful things from entering the brain, which is likely to be more deadly than in any other organ.

Prospects for cancer patients
The sugar therapy appears to be a proper new method to effectively battle cancer, because it relies on the basic needs of cancer cells. There is not much cancer cells can do to prevent sugar from entering the cell, as doing so would impede their own survival. Another therapy in development also focuses on persuading cancer cells to kill themselves. It works similar: part of the drug is used to get inside the cell, and thereafter another part  triggers the suicide pathway.

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