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Research uncovers how breast cancer cells adapt and survive

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Breast cancer cells find nourishment from fatty acids.

Breast cancer cells adapt to survive under conditions that would kill normal cells.

When breast cancer cells are deprived of sugar or oxygen they turn to fatty acids as a source of nourishment. New findings from researchers shows tumor cells can adapt and survive in ways previously unknown.

Study findings led by Dr. Tak Mak, Director, The Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) revealed cancer cells undergo “metabolic transformation” under conditions of environmental stress.

Breast cancer cells resilient when stressed

Mak explains it’s like the cancer cells are cheating on a diet, showing their resiliency. Instead of using glucose and oxygen, they turn to fatty acids, with the help of a protein that prevents cell death.

For the study, the scientists observed breast cancer cells growing and multiplying even though they were exposed to the anti-cancer drug rapamycin that blocks sugar metabolism.

Rather than dying from the chemotherapy drug, the cells continued to grow and multiply. The cancer cells produced a protein called carnitine palmitoyltransferase 1C (CPT1C), found in healthy brain tissue that prevented cancer cell death.

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CPTIC helped fuel the cells, showing how breast cancer cells can escape the effect of anti-cancer drugs.

Dr. Make said, "We also demonstrated that cells that were prevented from using CPT1C to cope with a disruption in sugar metabolism became more sensitive to environmental stress.”

The finding means researchers can focus on targeted therapies to stop cancer cells from adapting to environmental stress for survival.

The CPTIC protein was not previously associated with breast cancer, Mak says. "The fact that CPT1C becomes expressed under conditions of metabolic stress highlights the resilience of cancer cells. They are able to adapt to environmental challenges and find alternative sources of food in order to flourish where healthy cells would not survive.”

The finding that breast cancer cells find new sources of nutrition from fatty acids will help women with the disease and explains why chemotherapy drugs can fail.

Understanding how cancer cells adapt to survive environments that would kill normal cells is important for finding new and targeted drugs that block previously unknown breast cancer signaling pathways.

This page is updated on May 11, 2013.