A new scientific study has identified why colorectal cancer cells depend on a specific nutrient, and a way to starve them of it. Over one million men and women are living with colorectal cancer in the United States. The National Cancer Institute estimates 4.5% of all men and women will be diagnosed with the cancer during their lifetime, making it the third most common non-skin cancer.
In the study published online in Nature Communications, researchers showed how certain colorectal cancer cells reprogram their metabolism using glutamine, a non-essential amino acid. Many cancer cells rely on glutamine to survive. How they become so dependent on the molecule is hotly debated in the field.
Researchers studied a subset of colorectal cancer cells containing a genetic mutation called PIK3CA. This mutation is located in a gene critical for cell division and movement, and is found in approximately one third of all colorectal cancers. The mutation is also the most commonly identified genetic mutation across all cancers, making the results of the study universally appealing.
Researchers were interested in determining whether or not the common PIK3CA mutation contributes to changes in cancer cell metabolism, such as how nutrients like glutamine are processed. Normally, glutamine is broken down by cancer cells into several other molecules with the help of specific enzymes. This complicated system helps produce adenosine triphosphate, the energy currency of all cells, and other molecules critical for colorectal cancer cell growth.
The researchers found that colorectal cells with the PIK3CA mutation broke down significantly more glutamine than cells without the mutation. The researchers identified several enzymes involved in the process that are more active in the mutant cancer cells than in other cell types, explaining the increased need for glutamine. These enzymes become overactive in the mutant cancer cells due to a cascade of signals …