Fuel for brain tumors different than thought, could improve treatment options

Scientists at Newcastle University discovered that a common form of fatal brain tumor feeds off of its fats by slowing its growth in mice with a drug that slows the production of fatty acids.(Credit: Newcastle University)

A new study from Newcastle University shows that a common form of cancerous brain tumor uses fats to gain energy and grow, contradicting a long-held theory that glucose consumption is the main culprit.

The basic scientific consensus surrounding glioma, the most common form of fatal brain tumor that affects every four in 100,000 people, is that sugars fuel its growth. However, a new study from Newcastle University shows that fats are its primary energy source.

Researchers behind the study published Wednesday in the medical journal Neuro-Oncology, mutated stem cells from mice into forms that contribute to the accumulation of glioma tumors in humans. They implanted them in other mice with similar genetic backgrounds, and treated them with a fatty acid oxidation inhibitor called etomoxir that blocked their ability to process fat as fuel. Then they measured the speed of the tumors' growth.

The glioma tumors treated with the inhibitor grew at a much slower rate "prolonging median survival time by 17 percent," said lead study author Dr. Elizabeth Stoll from Newcastle University's Institute of Neuroscience.

The study did more than just find a drug that may help treat this fatal brain tumor that can be hard to detect in MRIs until they are already full developed. The study also discovered that cutting off the tumors' access to fatty acid oxidation enzymes "reduces energy production and cellular proliferation in glioma cells," according to the study's abstract.

"Our finding provides a new understanding of brain tumor biology, a new potential drug target for fighting this type of cancer," Stoll says.

The belief that sugar provides fuel for the growth of cancerous tumors dates back to the research of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Warburg who observed tumors swallowing up large amounts of glucose, a discovery also known as the "Warburg effect." Doctors often diagnose cancers using positron emission tomography (PET) scans to search for high glucose consumption levels in certain parts of the body, according to a profile published in the New York Times.

This isn't the first time that fat cells have been involved with cancerous brain tumors. A study published last December by researchers at Penn State College of Medicine claimed that they could detect the presence of these hard to find growths using a newly engineered fat cell.

The study was published in the journal Neruo-Oncology.

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