A Spoonful of Sugar

A special glucose molecule makes tumor cells more vulnerable to a pair of cancer cell-killing drugs.

Nov 23, 2011
Jef Akst


Combining a specific sugar molecule with two drugs can causes cancer cells of various types to kill themselves, according to a study published online in Cancer Research.

"Cancer researchers are always looking for new therapies to target a variety of cancers and kill tumor cells in various stages of development," Guy Perkins, associate project scientist at the Center for Research in Biological Systems at the University of California, San Diego, said in a press release. "The goal of targeted therapy is to stop the growth of cancerous cells while doing little or no harm to healthy tissue.”

The sugar—a modified glucose molecule called 2-deoxyglucose (2-DG)—is readily taken up by cancer cells, which need sugar for growth and replication. But it cannot be broken down like other sugars, effectively starving the cancer cells. This frees up an important apoptosis protein, called Bak, for action. Priming cells with 2-DG before exposing them to the drugs ABT-263/737 that target Bak killed a wide variety of cancer cells in culture, including leukemia, hepatocarcinoma, lung, breast and cervical cancers. In vivo animal studies confirmed that the combination effectively targeted tumors and induced apoptosis. Importantly, sugar-hungry brain cells are unaffected because the drugs cannot cross the body's blood-brain barrier.

"We are now trying to initiate a clinical trial for the combination," co-author Ryuji Yamaguchi, senior researcher at Kyushu University Medical School in Fukuoka, Japan, said in the release. "Since both 2-DG and ABT-263 (Navitoclax) are already in Phase II clinical trials (for other treatments), we know something about the safety of these agents. Once we take precautionary measures, the 2-DG-ABT combination therapy may prove an effective alternative to some existing cancer therapies. We may have found a simple, partial solution to a very complex disease."