“Starving” tumours might be the key to stopping metastatic breast cancer

Dr. Russell Jones and his team

What if there was a treatment that could “starve” a cancer tumour and prevent it from spreading? Dr. Russell Jones and his team are hoping to develop new therapeutics that will do just that by investigating oncometabolism, the metabolic differences in cancer cells.

“The core of what we’re studying is how cancer tumours fuel their growth,” says Dr. Jones, based at McGill University’s Goodman Cancer Centre in Montreal. “If you have a mutation that’s telling the tumour cell to grow in a certain way, and then you prevent them from feeding themselves, it could stop their growth.”

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Cancer cells spread in an uncontrolled fashion and make energy differently from normal cells. Interrupting this process could prevent cancer from metastasizing or becoming resistant to treatment – two problems that cause 90 per cent of breast cancer deaths.

Dr. Jones’ lab has discovered that the activity of a protein called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) dramatically increases in aggressive cancers. Inhibiting the activity of this protein appears to resensitize drug-resistant cancers to treatment.

“Because we know a lot about the genetic mutations that make the breast cancer cells drug resistant, we can block AMPK function and see how they respond,” he says, noting that early results look “amazing”.  “We’re trying to see how tumour cells run the game in their favour to keep themselves alive. We’re right in the midst of it and it’s very exciting!”