Targeting metabolic pathways: a new therapeutic approach for cancer?

Although it was first reported that cancer cells have altered metabolism almost a century ago, metabolic pathways have only been recognized as potential therapeutic targets for cancer in recent years. This renewed interest has occurred as researchers have demonstrated that signaling pathways affected by genetic mutations have a profound effect on cancer metabolism.

Research into this area is now rapidly accelerating. Earlier this year, a clinical trial demonstrated that exercise-induced changes in estrogen metabolism could reduce breast cancer risk, and results from animal studies suggested that drugs used to treat metabolic diseases such as diabetes may be effective against lung cancer. These and other studies indicate that metabolism could be an important target for cancer prevention and treatment.

Although a great deal of progress has been made in understanding cancer metabolism in the last few years, there are still many unanswered questions, and BMC Medicine attended the Cancer Research UK Unanswered Questions in Cancer Metabolism symposium in November 2013, where these issues were addressed. The meeting kicked off with an interesting session on imaging cancer metabolism, which explored how metabolic imaging can be used in the clinic. Markus Schwaiger from Munich University discussed the MUNICON trial of metabolic imaging as a tool to determine which patients could benefit from chemotherapy, and Sarah Nelson from University of California San Francisco described how imaging techniques can be applied to predict recurrence in glioma patients.

Shifting the focus to oncometabolites, Navdeep Chandell from Northwestern University discussed the role of pro- and anti-oxidants in cancer development. While antioxidants are typically thought to prevent cancer, Chandell described recent research suggesting that pro-oxidant therapies could actually cause cancer cell toxicity, and could thus be promising anti-cancer therapies. Richard MitWikimedia commons (Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)hen from the Institute of Food Research described how broccoli can reduce prostate cancer progression through its effect on metabolic pathways, and presented data on new types of modified broccoli– containing high levels of glucoraphanin– that could be beneficial for those with prostate cancer. Looking to the future, a number of speakers explored the potential of computational modeling and flux mapping to further our understanding of cancer metabolism and how it can be targeted therapeutically.

These interesting presentations highlighted great progress made in elucidating the role of metabolism in cancer development, and we will be interested to see whether new agents targeting metabolism will be able to overcome problems with resistance to current therapies.

To explore this rapidly advancing area of cancer research further, BioMed Central will host the Metabolism, Diet and Disease: Cancer and metabolism conference in May 2014, which will bring together leading researchers in the field. Internationally recognized speakers will talk on topics including metabolic needs of cancer cells, obesity, metabolic modulation of epigenetics, and metabolism-based cancer therapies. If you are interested in attending this conference or have any questions, please email


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