Why don't cancer cells starve to death? Researcher aims to find out

December 16, 2014 | by Darrin Joy

Cancer cells are voracious eaters. Like a swarm of locusts, they devour every edible tidbit they can find. But unlike locusts, when the food is gone, cancer cells can’t just move on to the next horn o’ plenty. They have to survive until more food shows up — and they do.


cancer cells City of Hope researcher Mei Kong has received a $1.7 million National Cancer Institute grant to understand how cancer cells avoid starvation during their self-caused famines.


Mei Kong, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Cancer Biology, recently received $1.7 million from the National Cancer Institute to understand how cancerous cells survive their self-imposed famines.

Glutamine is an essential form of food for cancer cells. The amino acid provides the energy the cells need to survive and multiply. But malignant cells are gluttons and grow so rapidly they run through the glutamine stores, leaving themselves without their nutrition source. Although this should cause the cells to starve to death, it doesn't.

Kong is working to uncover the tricks cancer cells use to stifle their hunger until the famine again turns to feast. So far she and her colleagues have found several proteins and molecular pathways involved in the process. The current grant will help them extend their studies, furthering our investment in scientific discovery to uncover possible new cancer therapies.

“Our work so far tells us we’re on the right track,” Kong said. “Now we want to get a deeper understanding of the pathways that cancer cells use to survive when glutamine metabolism is blocked.”

Kong said the research could lead to new, targeted agents that prevent cancer cells from using glutamine for energy and that block the alternate paths they turn on to survive when glutamine is not available.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under grant number 1R01CA183989-01A1. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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