FEBRUARY 1, 2023, NEW YORK – Scientists have long assumed that malignant tumors consume large quantities of energy and so churn through nutrients, putting competing healthy tissues—such as those of the heart, liver and pancreas—at a disadvantage. But a new study led by Ludwig Princeton Director Joshua Rabinowitz and Caroline Bartman, a postdoc in his laboratory, has now established that the opposite is apparently true: the tumor’s conversion of nutrients to usable cellular energy is in fact markedly, quantifiably sluggish. This lethargy may help cancers conserve energy for more nefarious undertakings, like growth and metastasis, according to the study.
The researchers report in the current issue of Nature that tumors from five different types of cancer were successful at proliferating on low-energy budgets in part because they neglect normal tissue functions that healthy organs carry out for the benefit of the body as a whole. The discovery has implications for anti-cancer strategies: some treatments seek to starve tumors on the assumption that they are especially susceptible to a paucity of nutrients.
“I think people assume that cancer does need a lot of energy because its cells have to pay to divide and proliferate,” said Bartman. “But no one had actually measured how much energy cancer makes and uses compared to healthy organs. We developed a way to measure it in cancers and found a dramatic difference between tumors and other tissues. So now we have this paradigm that cancer is thrifty—it’ll stop using energy for all these healthy tasks and just devote it to proliferation. What that tells you is that those types of avenues, like starving the cancer alone, are not going to be good strategies for treatment.”
Rabinowitz, who is also professor of chemistry at Princeton University’s Department of Chemistry and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, said researchers were “very surprised” at the results of their research. “I guess the big message is that growth is expensive,” Rabinowitz added, “but not as expensive as having thoughts or moving muscles or other aspects of mammalian life that normal organs carry out.”
The Princeton University story from which this summary is derived is available here.