Cancer cure
Scientist Paul Clarke looks at a picture of labelled cells on a monitor at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. Picture taken July 15, 2013. Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

What started as a research for diabetes treatment turned out to be a breakthrough of sorts for cancer sufferers. Scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) were trying to find how diabetes can be treated using protein supply. Like a bolt from the blue, the researchers realised that the same method may be repurposed to treat cancer cells. They discovered that cancer cell growth can be reduced by up to 96 percent by starving cancer cells of nutrients.

The researchers stumbled upon a vital supply route cancer cells use to obtain their nutrients, reports a statement released by ANU. This discovery can lead to new treatments to stop tumour growth. The moment the researchers blocked the supply route from where the cancer cells were obtaining their amino acid glutamine, they stopped growing.

“We thought OK, well protein is essential for humans to grow and proteins are also essential for cancer cells to grow so we thought maybe we can apply [this knowledge] to both treating diabetes and to stop the growth of cancer cells,” said Dr. Stefan Bröer from ANU Research School of Biology.

The findings of the study can be used to chemotherapy with less serious side-effects as normal cells do not use glutamine as building material. In the process, precious white blood cells that chemotherapy damages will be spared. Even hair loss as a result of chemotherapy can be curbed. However, cancer cells can adapt themselves easily. If one way is blocked, they find another way to draw their nutrients.

“Basically we close one gate and we block it and [the cells] open up another separate reserve gate, if you wish, and they could get the supplies through there. So we know that we have to do a two-pronged attack and we have to not allow the cell to come up with this reserve way of getting the nutrients,” Bröer said.

The moment the researchers blocked the second gateway by turning off the biochemical alarm using RNA silencing, the cells' growth reduced by 96 percent. The success has opened possibilities of new cancer drugs that can lock down cancer cells and kill them.

“We have developed a set of tests which make it very easy to determine if a drug is targeting glutamine transporters. This means we can set robots to work that will test tens of thousands of drugs for us over the next year or two,” said Lead author Angelika Bröer, also from ANU Research School of Biology.