In 1921, the German doctor Otto Warburg observed that cancer cells they gathered energy from glucose in a strangely inefficient way. Instead of “burning” it using oxygen, cancer cells instead fermented it. A process that occurs quickly, but does not fully exploit the energy of glucose.
Scientists have tried to explain this motivation over time, and some believed that these cancer cells had defective mitochondria (cellular organelles that function as “energy factories”), but none of these theories have ever been confirmed as they have simply been debunked over time.
A new solution comes from a research group at the Sloan Kettering Institute, based on an extensive series of genetic and biochemical experiments and published on January 21 in the journal Science. The reason for the fermentation is caused by the aerobic glycolysis (or Warburg effect), a metabolic pathway characteristic of tumor tissues, and the activity of a powerful enzyme in the cell called phosphoinositide 3-kinase.
“Phosphoinositide 3-kinase is a key signaling molecule that functions almost like a commander in chief of cellular metabolism“says immunologist Ming Li – head of the research team that made the discovery.”Most energy-expensive cellular events in cells, including cell division, occuronly when the molecule in question gives its ‘order’“.
Thanks to aerobic glycolysis, the activity of phosphoinositide 3-kinase increases and, in turn, the commitment of the cells to divide is strengthened. This finding suggests, therefore, that target cancer metabolism (which may even hibernate in response) could be an effective way to counter its growth.