Blocking Cancer Cells’ Use of Sugar to Boost Immune Cells
Cancer cells and immune cells share something in common: They both love sugar. Sugar is an important nutrient. All cells use sugar as a vital source of energy and building blocks. For immune cells, gobbling up sugar is a good thing, since it means getting enough nutrients to grow and divide for stronger immune responses. But cancer cells use sugar for more nefarious ends. So, what happens when tumor cells and immune cells battle for access to the same supply of sugar? That’s the central question that Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) researchers Taha Merghoub,Jedd Wolchok, and Roberta Zappasodi explore in a new study published in the journal Nature.
Using mouse models and data from human patients, the researchers found a direct relationship between the amount of sugar — specifically glucose — that a tumor consumes and the effectiveness of immunotherapy: The more sugar the tumor consumed, the less effective the immunotherapy. The findings suggest that blocking cancer cells’ use of sugar could tip the scales in favor of immune cells, especially when they are activated by immunotherapy drugs.
“If we reduce a tumor’s use of glucose, then we free up more of it for immune cells to use, which benefits the immune response,” says Dr. Merghoub, who co-led the research effort.
“What we think we’ve identified is a new means to improve checkpoint blockade immunotherapy,” adds Dr. Wolchok. Immune checkpoint inhibitors release the brakes on immune cells and can provide lasting benefits for people with cancer, but they do not work for everyone. The new research may provide a way to boost their effectiveness.
Dr. Wolchok, Chief of the Immuno-Oncology Service in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at MSK, also directs the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at MSK and co-directs the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy at MSK.