Cancer cells usually live in an environment with limited supplies of the nutrients they need to proliferate — most notably, oxygen and glucose. However, they are still able to divide uncontrollably, producing new cancer cells.
A new study from researchers at MIT and the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cancer Center helps to explain how this is possible. The researchers found that when deprived of oxygen, cancer cells (and many other mammalian cells) can engage an alternate metabolic pathway that allows them to use glutamine, a plentiful amino acid, as the starting material for synthesizing fatty molecules known as lipids. These lipids are essential components of many cell structures, including cell membranes.
The finding, reported in the Nov. 20 online edition of Nature, challenges the long-held belief that cells synthesize most of their lipids from glucose, and raises the possibility of developing drugs that starve tumor cells by cutting off this alternate pathway.