Cancer scientists discover new way breast cancer cells adapt to environmental stress

The findings, published today in Genes and Development, show how breast cancer cells can thrive when deprived of their usual diet of glucose (sugar) and oxygen by turning to fatty acids for energy generation.

“Our results demonstrate that a protein not previously associated with breast cancer is involved in helping these cells to adapt to starvation conditions and to continue their uncontrolled growth,” says Dr. Mak. “The cancer cells acted like cheaters on a diet and found a new food source in fatty acids. … [this] 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 is an important stepping stone to developing targeted therapies that can block cancer cells from adapting to environmental challenges and surviving efforts to kill them. This most recent discovery builds on Dr. Mak’s impressive body of work, which has led to important breakthroughs in immunology and our understanding of cancer at the molecular level. Dr. Mak is internationally renowned for his 1984 landmark scientific paper on the cloning of the genes for the T-cell receptor, a key component of the human immune system.  

The research published today was financially supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Forschungskredit of the University of Zurich and Oncosuisse.

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