Turning on key enzyme blocks tumour formation

Drug-like molecule restores normal cell metabolism, preventing cancer cells from growing.

Unlike ordinary cells, cancer cells devote most of their energy to reproducing themselves. To do this, they must trigger alternative metabolic pathways that produce new cellular building blocks, such as DNA, carbohydrates and lipids.

Chemical compounds that disrupt an enzyme critical to this metabolic diversion prevent tumors from forming in mice, according to an MIT-led study appearing online in Nature Chemical Biology on 26 August.

Matthew Vander Heiden, senior author of the paper, and others have previously shown that cancer cells use a specific form of this enzyme, known as pyruvate kinase, which allows them to focus their energy on building new cells.

The new work suggests that drugs that reverse the properties of pyruvate kinase to be more like the form found in many normal cells hold potential to treat human cancers; however, more research is needed to demonstrate that, says Vander Heiden, the Howard S. and Linda B. Stern Career Development Assistant Professor of Biology and a member of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

''It's fair to say that perhaps activating pyruvate kinase could have some role in pushing tumors away from a program that allows them to efficiently grow,'' Vander Heiden says. ''Whether or not it would really be a viable drug in people is an open question.''