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Healthy? Scientists Now Say ‘This Sugar Could Give Cancer an Extra Punch Alongside Other Treatments’

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Sugar shows promising potential in combating cancer

Collaborative research from Sanford Burnham Prebys and the Osaka International Cancer Institute illuminates how mannose, a sugar integral to many human physiological processes and known to restrict cancer cell growth, could enhance cancer treatment.

The study, published in eLife, suggests that mannose could complement other cancer treatments.

Hudson Freeze, Ph.D., the study’s co-author and director of the Human Genetics Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys, says, “This sugar could give cancer an extra punch alongside other treatments.

“And because mannose is found throughout the body naturally, it could improve cancer treatment without any undesirable side effects.”

Mannose is a type of sugar that the body attaches to proteins to maintain their structure and facilitate their interaction with other molecules. This process, known as glycosylation, is vital for life. Glycosylation disorders can lead to rare, yet often lethal, human diseases.

“It’s been known for more than a century that mannose is lethal to honeybees because they can’t process it like humans do—it’s known as ‘honeybee syndrome,” explains Freeze. “We wanted to see if there is any relationship between honeybee syndrome and the anti-cancer properties of mannose, which could lead to an entirely new approach to combat cancer.” 

Although previous studies have indicated that mannose can inhibit the growth of various cancers in the laboratory, the mechanism behind this phenomenon is not yet fully understood. To deepen their understanding, the researchers explored an interesting attribute of mannose discovered in an unlikely candidate: honeybees.

The researchers used genetically modified human fibrosarcoma cancer cells—a rare cancer that affects connective tissue—to emulate honeybee syndrome. They discovered that without the necessary enzyme to metabolize mannose, cells reproduced slowly and became significantly more susceptible to chemotherapy.

Freeze elaborates, “We found that triggering honeybee syndrome in these cancer cells made them unable to synthesize the building blocks of DNA and replicate normally. This helps explain the anti-cancer effects of mannose that have we’ve observed in the lab.” 

While exploiting honeybee syndrome could offer a promising supplementary cancer treatment, the researchers warn that this effect relies on crucial metabolic processes. Therefore, further research is required to identify which cancer types would be most sensitive to mannose.

Freeze concludes, “If we can find cancers that have a low activity of the enzyme that processes mannose, treating them with mannose could give just enough of a nudge to make chemotherapy more effective. Many people assume that you always discover treatments in response to the disease, but sometimes you find biology that could be useful for treatment and then have to find the disease to match it.”

Meanwhile, this study underscores the untapped potential of glycosylating sugars in cancer treatment, an area still in its early stages of research.

Freeze adds, “The glycobiology of sugar metabolism within cancer cells is still an unexplored frontier, and it could be an untapped treasure trove of potential treatments just waiting to be discovered.”

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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