by Barbara Berkeley, MD
Because of my interest in the potentially toxic effects of too much sugar on the body, I became fascinated with the work of one Otto Warburg back in 2010. At that time, I published this blog about him. Warburg believed that cancer cells were unable to live by normal cellular processes and that they relied on sugar...and large amounts of it---to live. The thought was that cancer cells might be able to be starved to death by depriving them of their primary fuel.
For the last few years, I've seen nothing about Warburg and read nothing about his work. I continued to be interested in his beliefs and in another potentially carcinogenic effect of sugar: it's stimulation of the hormone insulin. Insulin is secreted with a growth factor called IGF 1 that is responsible for promoting cancer growth. With these two mechanisms in mind, it seemed that starving tumors both of nutrients and of stimulants might be worth consideration.
Well, Otto has resurfaced. Today's New York Times published an unexpected article about Warburg and his work. I am sharing it here.
Warburg's theories disappeared from the cancer landscape after his death in the 70s and were relegated to obscurity. After Watson and Crick figured out the structure of DNA, cancer research veered toward finding ways to discover and treat mutated genes. Warburg was forgotten. But, genetic treatments have not worked out so well. As the article says:
"There are typically many mutations in a single cancer. But there are a limited number of ways that the body can produce energy and support rapid growth. Cancer cells rely on these fuels in a way that healthy cells don’t. The hope of scientists at the forefront of the Warburg revival is that they will be able to slow — or even stop — tumors by disrupting one or more of the many chemical reactions a cell uses to proliferate, and, in the process, starve cancer cells of the nutrients they desperately need to grow."
In other words, scientists are beginning to look at treatments that target and treat the metabolism of the cancer cell rather than its origin.
Why is an obesity specialist so interested in Otto Warburg? Because Warburg's work was all about sugar and insulin. And that's what my world is about as well. Almost all of my patients have gotten obese because they have developed the tendency to make too much insulin.....and insulin is a cancer stimulator. Why did my patients start making too much insulin? There may be many reasons, but one of them is certainly the amount of sugar in the modern diet. We are constantly----daily, hourly---eating sugars and starchy foods that signal the body to pump out insulin.
Quoting again from the Times article, there's this:
"Near the end of his life, Warburg grew obsessed with his diet. He believed that most cancer was preventable and thought that chemicals added to food and used in agriculture could cause tumors by interfering with respiration.
Warburg’s personal diet is unlikely to become a path to prevention. But the Warburg revival has allowed researchers to develop a hypothesis for how the diets that are linked to our obesity and diabetes epidemics — specifically, sugar-heavy diets that can result in permanently elevated levels of the hormone insulin — may also be driving cells to the Warburg effect and cancer."
"The insulin hypothesis can be traced to the research of Lewis Cantley, the director of the Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College. In the 1980s, Cantley discovered how insulin, which is released by the pancreas and tells cells to take up glucose, influences what happens inside a cell. Cantley now refers to insulin and a closely related hormone, IGF-1 (insulinlike growth factor 1), as “the champion” activators of metabolic proteins linked to cancer. He’s beginning to see evidence, he says, that in some cases, “it really is insulin itself that’s getting the tumor started.” One way to think about the Warburg effect, says Cantley, is as the insulin, or IGF-1, signaling pathway “gone awry — it’s cells behaving as though insulin were telling it to take up glucose all the time and to grow.” Cantley, who avoids eating sugar as much as he can, is currently studying the effects of diet on mice that have the mutations that are commonly found in colorectal and other cancers. He says that the effects of a sugary diet on colorectal, breast and other cancer models “looks very impressive” and “rather scary.” Elevated insulin is also strongly associated with obesity, which is expected soon to overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable cancer."
So ask yourself. Will your life really be so different if you pass up that doughnut or order grilled salmon instead of that pasta dish?
The answer may be not what you expected. In fact, those choices might result in a life with fewer chances of a cancer, a life that is very different indeed.