While millions of people claim that desserts are their favorite guilty pleasure, scientists report that certain cancer cells may have an even bigger sweet tooth.
Medical researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas discovered that one specific type of cancer — squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC) — is “remarkably more dependent” on sugar for its energy supply, as compared with other cancers.
Since various studies over the years have found that many cancer cells feed off sugar (in the form of glucose), the investigative team decided to examine the differences in metabolism between two major subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer: adenocarcinoma (ADC) and SqCC. They noted that about one quarter of all lung cancers are SqCC, which have been difficult to treat with targeted therapies.
The investigators collected data regarding 33 types of cancers from more than 11,000 patients. And here’s what they found: A protein responsible for transporting glucose into cells was present in significantly higher levels in lung SqCC than in lung ADC. The protein, called glucose transporter 1 or GLUT1, takes up glucose into cells, where the sugar provides a fundamental energy source and fuels cell metabolism.
These results, which were published in the journal Nature Communications, could lead to new forms of treatment, such as a GLUT1 inhibitor, along with specific dietary recommendations.
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer, both small cell and non-small cell, is the second most common cancer in both men and women (after skin cancer). Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.
And in addition to squamous cell lung cancer, the research team found that GLUT1 levels were much higher in other types of SqCC: head and neck, esophageal, and cervical cancers.
Other research has also indicated a link between sugar and cancer. A 2016 study published in the online issue of Cancer Research stated that high amounts of dietary sugar — which are found in the typical Western diet — may increase the risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs. Also, medical investigators from New York University discovered that consuming sugary drinks, processed foods, and high-carb meals could triple a man’s risk of prostate cancer.
“For many years, it has been thought that most cancers are universally addicted to sugars,” Jung-whan “Jay” Kim, senior study author and assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, tells Yahoo Beauty. “We were very surprised to find that this specific type of lung cancer is particularly reliant on sugar (glucose) for its growth. Identifying and characterizing this kind of unique metabolic changes associated with specific types of cancer will lead to the development of new cancer therapies, which may exploit a particular cancer’s unique sugar needs.”
He adds that there is no effective therapy that specifically targets lung squamous cancers. “So a very interesting further study would be to test if reduction of sugar consumption, which will restrict sugar to cancer cells, can reduce the tumor growth of this highly sugar-addicted lung cancer,” says Kim.
In fact, an upcoming study by Kim’s group will examine the effect of a sugar-restricted diet on the progression of lung cancer in an animal model of the disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2015, on average, each American consumed more than 75 pounds of refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners combined.
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