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Sweet Science: Glucose Regulates Stem Cells, Cancer

Most people think of glucose, a humble sugar, as the fuel for several critical body functions, including muscle contraction, brain function, and a host of cellular processes. As it turns out, glucose function might also make a prime target for the development of regenerative medicine and cancer treatments.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic led by Dr. Andre Terzic report in Cell Metabolism that glucose plays a pivotal role in “re-induction” of pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) from cells called fibroblasts.  These rapidly dividing cells, which normally build connective tissues like collagen, can be convinced to shutter their oxidative, mitochondria-based metabolism in favor of a glycolytic pathway, essentially changing the cells to iPSCs in the process. 

Terzic et al, Cell Metabolism 2011

How does one rewire cellular metabolism?  Expose mouse fibroblasts to a nuclear reprogramming kit (which uses viruses to rewrite nuclear DNA), and then grow them in a high-glucose solution. The scientists used 1H NMR metabolic profiling to monitor changes in cellular metabolism in this sugary environment, finding that in roughly one week they exhibit the same metabolic footprint as embryonic stem cells. No word yet on small molecule drugs that can supplant this process.  
        
In other glycemic news, Stanford Medical School researchers, led by Dr. Amato J. Giaccia, have reported a small molecule capable of inducing “synthetic lethality” in renal cell carcinomas, a common type of kidney cancer. Treatment of cancer by chemical synthetic lethality combines small-molecule inhibition and genetic mutation to selectively kill cancer cells dependent on these pathways.  Carmen briefly covered this advance in the August 8 issue of C&EN.

Two transporters for glucose, GLUT1 and GLUT2, control how kidney cells use sugar; however, genetic mutations cause cancerous cells to favor GLUT1. STF-31, a sulfonamide which targets GLUT1, selectively shuts down glucose transport to those cancerous cells lacking functional VHL tumor suppressor genes, a common mutation in renal cell carcinomas. But tumor cells are notoriously tricky. The Stanford scientists wondered if in the absence of the GLUT1 activity, cancer cells: might simply use an alternative pathway called oxidative phosphorylation to stay alive.  They found that adding excess pyruvate (fuel for the oxidative phosphorylation engine) could not compensate for glucose starvation, and RCC cells still died. Other non-specific glucose transporter inhibitors (fasentin or phloretin, which hit GLUT1 and GLUT2 indiscriminately) killed normal kidney cells as well as cancerous cells, which confirms overexpressed GLUT1 as STF-31’s RCC target.

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