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Cancer cells metabolize glucose at elevated rates and have a higher sensitivity to glucose reduction. However, the precise molecular mechanisms leading to different responses to glucose restriction between normal and cancer cells are not fully understood. We analyzed normal WI-38 and immortalized WI-38/S fetal lung fibroblasts and found that glucose restriction resulted in growth inhibition and apoptosis in WI-38/S cells, whereas it induced lifespan extension in WI-38 cells. Moreover, in WI-38/S cells glucose restriction decreased expression of hTERT (human telomerase reverse transcriptase) and increased expression of p16INK4a. Opposite effects were found in the gene expression of hTERT and p16 in WI-38 cells in response to glucose restriction. The altered gene expression was partly due to glucose restriction-induced DNA methylation changes and chromatin remodeling of the hTERT and p16 promoters in normal and immortalized WI-38 cells. Furthermore, glucose restriction resulted in altered hTERT and p16 expression in response to epigenetic regulators in WI-38 rather than WI-38/S cells, suggesting that energy stress-induced differential epigenetic regulation may lead to different cellular fates in normal and precancerous cells. Collectively, these results provide new insights into the epigenetic mechanisms of a nutrient control strategy that may contribute to cancer therapy as well as antiaging approaches.—Li, Y., Liu, L., Tollefsbol, T. O. Glucose restriction can extend normal cell lifespan and impair precancerous cell growth through epigenetic control of hTERT and p16 expression.
Warburg's hypothesis was postulated by the Nobel laureate Otto Heinrich Warburg in 1924. He hypothesized that cancer, malignant growth, and tumor growth are caused by the fact that tumor cells mainly generate energy (as e.g. adenosine triphosphate / ATP) by non-oxidative breakdown of glucose (a process called glycolysis). This is in contrast to "healthy" cells which mainly generate energy from oxidative breakdown of pyruvate. Pyruvate is an end-product of glycolysis, and is oxidized within the mitochondria. Hence, according to Warburg, cancer should be interpreted as a mitochondrial dysfunction. Warburg reported a fundamental difference between normal and cancerous cells to be the ratio of glycolysis to respiration; this observation is also known as the Warburg effect.