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Study deepens the connection between hypoxia and cancer growth

Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 11:03am

There are a number of species that have a low to negligible probability of developing cancer. These include squirrels, turtles, the mole rat and certain whales. The reasons why are linked to these species' ability to adapt their oxygen demand when faced with a low oxygen supply. That connection itself goes back to a discover by the great physiologist and Nobel laureate Otto Warburg, who hypothesized in 1924 that, whatever the secondary causes of cancer, there is only one primary cause: a cell switch to fermentation of sugars in the face of low oxygen levels. The details of this fascinating story have now been filled in a little further by UGA bioinformatics and computational bioloy professor, Regents-GRA Eminent Scholar Ying Xu:

Chronic inflammation that induces low oxygen levels, or hypoxia, is a widely accepted cause of cancer development. However, the link between hypoxia and cell proliferation is far from clear.

A new study by University of Georgia researchers presents a model explaining the connection between chronic inflammation, low oxygen levels and the resulting cell proliferation that begins the cancer process.

"A switch in energy metabolism mechanisms—from the normal oxygenic respiration our cells use to process glucose into energy to a much less efficient, much lower capacity process called anaerobic fermentation—leads to glucose accumulation," said Ying Xu, a Regents-Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor of bioinformatics and computational biology in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

According to the study, this accumulation of glucose and related signaling through the body leads to a reaction much the same as to that of damaged tissue, eventually triggering the cell proliferation that causes cancer. Specifically it leads to synthesis, export and fragmentation of hyaluronic acids, which can serve as signals for tissue repair.

A fascinating and important breakthrough, in a field reluctant to use that term but where many desperately hope for its reality. Building on the work of the past, questioning current practices, explaining a complex process through the use of simple analogs - all the hallmarks of great research. The idea that cancer cell growth might be understood as a survival reaction, to a mistaken circumstance, in the body could not have wider significance. Great work and there's no doubt more to come from Xu and his team. 


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