Leukemia cells steal glucose to feed their growth

Leukemia cells steal glucose to feed their growth

Researchers at the Colorado Cancer Center led by Dr. Craig Jordan have shown that cancer cells devour blood sugar, rob healthy cells of their sugar and increase serotonin levels to further increase blood sugar levels and feed their cancer.

We’ve all heard the adage ‘sugar feeds cancer’ and we all know that one of the main ways of diagnosing cancer through imaging uses this very fact to see where injected sugar (glucose) collects in the body. How do cancer cells do this though? If all cells take up sugar, why do only cancer cells light up in imaging scans?

Most of what we eat in the form of carbohydrate, eventually gets broken down to smaller and smaller particles in our digestive tract and enters our blood stream in the form of glucose. Cancer cells require far more glucose than healthy cells because they produce energy in a far less efficient way yet they want to grow much faster. One way cancer cells mop up available glucose from the blood stream is that they have 14 times more insulin receptor sites as are found on healthy cells. The insulin transports the glucose in to the cells.

For this reason, there has been research into ways of blocking the uptake of glucose as a form of treatment for cancer. However, the problem is that healthy cells also need glucose, so if you start blocking glucose uptake, the healthy cells are going to suffer.

At the University of Colorado Cancer Center, scientists led by Craig Jordan PhD, discovered that leukemia cells not only consume more glucose due to more receptors, but they actually block the ability of healthy cells to take up glucose as well (1). They literally rob the healthy cells and further weaken them.

Diabetes is a well-known risk factor for cancer (2). However, diabetes and cancer share a similar process – both conditions render healthy cells less able to take up glucose efficiently. Our bodies have very efficient self-regulating mechanisms, the main one being insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas in response to glucose in the bloodstream.

When large amounts of carbohydrates are consumed, insulin is essential for regulating carbohydrate metabolism; it takes glucose from our blood and transports it into our cells so that it can be burned for energy, keeping blood sugar at normal levels. It thus prevents our blood sugar from becoming too high, causing hyperglycaemia, which can prove fatal.

In diabetics, cells no longer respond to insulin, causing glucose build up in the bloodstream. But while approximately 6% of UK adults are full diabetics, up to 70% are thought to have some degree of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, thanks to poor sugar control, being overweight, poor diets, big meals and so on. Jordan and his team found that leukemia cells create a diabetic-like condition in the body and observed characteristics of insulin resistance in leukemia patients. Leukemia tumour cells start off by encouraging fat cells to produce a protein called IGFBP1, which makes healthy cells less responsive to insulin and creating the same effect of insulin resistance.

When IGFBP1 is high, more insulin is needed to use glucose and this increases a patient’s risk of developing insulin resistance – more fat cells mean more IGFBP1 which means more glucose remains in the blood stream for cancer cells to feed on.

The team found other ways the cancer steals from healthy cells – for example, the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin was yet another target of the cancer cells. And serotonin is essential for the production of insulin in the pancreas. Cancer cells want to keep insulin low so that more glucose stays in the bloodstream where they can get at it easily. By targeting serotonin, cancer cells are making sure that the maximum amount of glucose stays in the blood for themselves.

By understanding the mechanisms by which cancer cells disrupt the body’s energy system, the team devised a therapy called Ser-Tri therapy, which when they administered it, saw the restoration of normal glucose control, the recovery of insulin levels and lower levels of IGFBP1 and slowed growth of leukemia cells.

Jordan concluded that “This furthers the notion that you can do things systemically to disfavour leukaemia cells and favour normal tissue. This could be part of limiting growth of tumours”

Chris Woollams, former Oxford Biochemist and a founder of CANCERactive added, “What more can we say? In the first edition of my book ‘Everything you need to know to help you beat cancer’ back in 2005, I told readers that sugar fed cancer. By 2012, we’d written ‘20 links between sugar and cancer’. If readers prefer to believe the misinformation put out by Big Sugar, Cancer Research bloggers, certain oncologists, nurses and skeptics, so be it. But here again, researchers show you consume glucose, fizzy soft drinks, biscuits, sugary buns, ice cream and the like at your peril if you have cancer. It feeds your cancer. And anyone who says otherwise is ignorant. We’ve even been suggesting berberine, raw ginger and even metformin as complementary therapies.”

Go to: 20 links between sugar and cancer


  1. https://www.cell.com/cancer-cell/fulltext/S1535-6108(18)30376-3
  2. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/diabetes-the-basics/related-conditions/diabetes-and-cancer
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