New & Noteworthy

Yeast Reveals a Vicious Circle Between Sugar and Cancer

November 10, 2017

The housing crisis that started in 2006 is a classic example of a vicious circle. As prices went down, some people couldn’t afford their mortgages and so were foreclosed upon. These foreclosed houses entered the market and caused prices to drop further which caused more foreclosures and so on. Only a Herculean effort by the government and the Federal Reserve was able to break this cycle.


A vicious circle between foreclosed homes and home prices popped the housing bubble starting in 2006. A similar vicious circle between glucose fermentation and cancer cell aggressiveness makes for particularly nasty cancers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Vicious circles can happen in biology too.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Peeters and coworkers have used our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae to uncover one of these in cancer cells. And it turns out that this yeast is the perfect model organism for this study. (Funny how often that is true…)

Both S. cerevisiae and cancer tend to utilize their sugar through fermentation instead of respiration. This process in yeast is obviously great news for beer and wine drinkers. However, it is not such great news for people with cancer.

In the Warburg effect (named after the scientist who discovered it), the more aggressive a cancer is, the more sugar it ferments. This new study suggests that the consumption of sugar via fermentation and the aggressiveness of the cancer are related in a vicious circle.

Fermentation creates the byproduct fructose-1,6-bisphosphate (Fru1,6bisP) which, according to this study, activates the oncogene Ras which causes the cell to grow faster. As it grows faster, it ferments sugar faster creating more Fru1,6bisP which activates more Ras and so on. The cancer cells grow out of control until doctors apply some Herculean treatment to put a stop to it.

While yeast and cancer cells have a lot in common, wild type yeast isn’t quite up to cancer’s standards when it comes to cancer’s unbridled intake of glucose into the glycolysis pathway. These authors turned yeast a bit more cancer-like in this regard by deleting the TPS1 gene. Tps1p is a yeast hexokinase that tightly regulates yeast’s glucose intake into glycolysis.

Yeast cells without TPS1 deal poorly with glucose and need to be grown in galactose. When Peeters and coworkers added glucose to tps1Δ cells that had been previously grown in galactose, the cells activated Ras, a potent oncogene. This activation caused the cell to undergo apoptosis as assayed by cytochrome c release from the mitochondria, exposure of phosphadityl serine on the plasma membrane and generation of reactive oxygen species.

Deletion of hexokinase 2 eliminated this activation of Ras and suppressed the apoptosis. This suggests that perhaps some buildup of an intermediate metabolite in the glycolytic pathway might be to blame for the Ras activation.

The authors tested this hypothesis by removing the cell wall of wild type yeast cells and adding glycolysis metabolites to the resulting spheroplasts. They found that one metabolite, Fru1,6bisP, activated Ras. Supporting this finding, they found that deletion of both PFK1 and PFK2, two genes that encode phosphofructokinase 1, the enzyme responsible for making Fru1,6bisP, eliminated Ras activation in tps1Δ cells. Together, these data support the idea that Fru1,6bisP is the culprit behind Ras activation in yeast.


Vicious circles like the one behind the Warburg effect are everywhere! (Twisted Doodles)

All well and good, but what about human cancer cells? Is something similar going on there? You have probably guessed that the answer is yes.

The authors first depleted the level of Fru1,6bisP in two different cell lines by starving them of glucose for 48 hours. They then added back glucose, which has been shown to increase the levels of Fru1,6bisP in cells, and measured the activation level of Ras and two of its downstream targets, MEK and ERK. All three were transiently activated in both HEK293T and Hela Kyoto cell lines. Looks like Fru1,6bisP activates Ras in cancer cells as well.

So this might explain the Warburg effect that I mentioned earlier. The more glucose a cancer cell uses during fermentation, the more Fru1,6bisP it generates. And the more Fru1,6bisP that is made, the more Ras gets activated prompting the cell to grow faster. Which of course results in more glucose getting fermented and so on.

I don’t have time to go into the work these authors did to try to uncover the mechanism by which Fru1,6bisP activates Ras, but suffice it to say that it does not appear to be a direct interaction with Ras. Instead, it appears to work at least partially by disrupting the interaction between Ras and one of its guanine nucleotide exchange factors, Cdc25p (or Sos1 in humans).

And the story is not yet complete. There is still a lot of work to do in pinning down the specifics of this vicious circle. Yeast will undoubtedly be instrumental in helping us work through the rest of the details.

by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: cancer , Warburg Effect , PFK1 , PFK2 , TPS1 , fermentation