Metabolic basis of Cancer

Can We Starve Cancer? Is Cancer a Metabolic Disease?

In recent years, there has been a paradigm shift in our understanding of cancer. Traditionally viewed as a genetic disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth, emerging evidence suggests that cancer is also a metabolic disease. This groundbreaking concept has opened up new avenues for research and potential therapeutic strategies. In this article, we will explore the idea of cancer as a metabolic disease and its implications for the future of cancer treatment.

Cancer is a complex disease characterized by abnormal cell growth and invasion of surrounding tissues, leading to malignant tumors. The origin and mechanisms of cancer have been extensively studied, but challenges persist in developing effective management strategies. The Warburg effect, a metabolic alteration involving increased glucose uptake and aerobic glycolysis in tumor cells, has been recognized as a common feature of most cancers.

The link between impaired respiration, genomic mutability, and the hallmarks of cancer remains unclear. This article aims to revisit the concept of tumor cell origin, discussing the hypothesis that impaired energy metabolism and respiration underlie genome instability and tumor progression.

The constant level of usable energy is crucial for cell viability, and disturbances in this energy level can compromise cellular functions. The reliance on glycolysis and glutaminolysis to compensate for mitochondrial impairment provides insight into the energy requirements of cancer cells. While the genetic origin of cancer has been widely accepted, emerging evidence challenges this view, suggesting that cancer is primarily a metabolic disease. Understanding the metabolic nature of cancer could open new avenues for cancer management and prevention.

What Do Mitochondria Do?

Mitochondria are often referred to as the “powerhouses” of the cell due to their crucial role in energy production. They are double-membrane organelles found in most eukaryotic cells and are responsible for generating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary energy source of our cells and also our bodies. Without ATP we wouldn’t be able to live or perform biological functions.

However, Mitochondria don’t only produce Energy in the form of ATP they have other vast metabolic roles. Some of these roles include the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and amino acids. They are involved in the citric acid cycle (also known as the Krebs cycle or TCA cycle), which is a central pathway for energy generation and biosynthesis of molecules required for cellular functions. Additionally, mitochondria are involved in the metabolism of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are potentially harmful byproducts of cellular respiration.

mitochondria possess their own DNA, known as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which encodes essential proteins involved in oxidative phosphorylation and energy production. Mutations in mtDNA have been associated with certain types of cancer and may contribute to tumor development and progression. However, these mutations are typically somatic mutations that occur within the mitochondria of already cancerous cells, rather than being a direct consequence of mitochondrial transplantation.

In cancer research, scientists have investigated the role of mitochondrial DNA mutations in tumor progression, metastasis, and resistance to therapy. These studies often focus on understanding the impact of mtDNA mutations on mitochondrial function, energy metabolism, and reactive oxygen species production within cancer cells.

Studies looking at mitochondrial transplantations that involved mutated mitochondria from cancerous cells (cybrid experiments) in normal healthy cells, when these were transplanted the normal cell became cancerous. Similarly when mitochondria from healthy cells and cytoplasm were applied to cancerous cancer suppression occurred.

In a series of experiments in Israel, Schaeffer demonstrated that suppression of malignancy could reach 100% in cells that contained tumorigenic nuclei and normal cytoplasm. Further demonstrating the theory that cancer might be metabolic in nature rather than somatic (coming from nuclear DNA mutations).

Can Fasting Help To kill Cancer Cells

Fasting, or the practice of abstaining from food for a certain period of time, has gained attention as a potential approach to cancer treatment. While there is ongoing research exploring the effects of fasting on cancer cells, it is important to note that the evidence is still limited and inconclusive. Currently, there is no definitive scientific consensus on the efficacy of fasting as a standalone treatment to kill cancer cells.

The rationale behind exploring fasting as a potential anti-cancer strategy stems from observations that cancer cells often rely on glucose as their primary energy source. Fasting and certain dietary interventions, such as a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, aim to limit glucose availability, potentially depriving cancer cells of their preferred fuel and inhibiting their growth.

However, the biggest problem here is that most cancer cells utilize other sources of energy such as fats. Cancers such as prostate, ovarian, and leukemias will express fat-related genes to encourage fats to enter the cells, using fats as their main metabolic source of energy.

The main answer here is that fasting alone and cutting out the carbohydrates alone will not directly reduce cancer risk.

What interventions can be done to reduce cancer risk?

Although cancer might have a metabolic component to its pathogenesis the actual cause of cancer is too heterogenous and to complex to just be explained by a metabolic dysfunction. Cancer has various origins from Somatic (DNA) mutations to metabolic aberrations that lead to the mutation in cells.

However although we might be still powerless in combating cancer at this stage there are lifestyle interventions that each of us can do to help reduce risk of developing or worsening the progression of the disease.

  1. Healthy Diet: Consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can provide essential nutrients and antioxidants that support cellular health and reduce inflammation. Limiting the intake of processed foods, red meat, sugary beverages, and unhealthy fats is also recommended.
  2. Physical Activity: Engaging in regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy body weight, improves metabolic function, and reduces the risk of various cancers. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.
  3. Weight Management: Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial, as obesity and excess body fat can contribute to chronic inflammation and metabolic dysfunction, increasing the risk of several types of cancer. Balancing caloric intake with physical activity is key to achieving and sustaining a healthy weight.
  4. Tobacco and Alcohol Use: Avoiding tobacco in all forms, including cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco, is essential to reduce the risk of numerous cancers. Limiting alcohol consumption, as excessive intake is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including those of the liver, breast, and digestive tract, is also recommended.
  5. Sun Protection: Protecting the skin from excessive sun exposure is important in preventing skin cancer. This includes using sunscreen with a high SPF, seeking shade during peak sun hours, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding tanning beds.
  6. Stress Management: Chronic stress can contribute to hormonal imbalances, inflammation, and impaired immune function, which may impact cancer risk. Adopting stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, regular exercise, and seeking social support can help manage stress levels.
  7. Sleep Quality: Getting sufficient high-quality sleep is crucial for overall health and well-being. Poor sleep patterns or insufficient sleep have been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. Aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
  8. Vaccinations: Following recommended vaccination schedules, such as those for human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B, can help prevent infections that are linked to certain cancers.

It’s important to note that while lifestyle factors can contribute to reducing the metabolic burden leading to cancer, they do not guarantee cancer prevention. Regular screenings, early detection, and medical interventions remain essential components of cancer prevention and management. Consult with healthcare professionals for personalized advice and guidance based on individual health status and risk factors.


Seyfried TN. Cancer as a mitochondrial metabolic disease. Front Cell Dev Biol. 2015 Jul 7;3:43. doi: 10.3389/fcell.2015.00043. PMID: 26217661; PMCID: PMC4493566.

Goncalves, Marcus & Hopkins, Benjamin & Cantley, Lewis. (2019). Dietary Fat and Sugar in Promoting Cancer Development and Progression. Annual Review of Cancer Biology. 3. 255-273. 10.1146/annurev-cancerbio-030518-055855.

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