Preventing Skin Cancer from Hijacking the Body’s Sugar

Grantee: Richard Wang, MD, PhD
Institution: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
Area of Research: Tumor Biochemistry and Endocrinology
Term: 7/01/2018 to 06/30/2022

The Challenge: Most cells need sugar (glucose) to function well because glucose gives them energy to do their work. Cancer cells are no different. They use a lot of sugar when they’re growing and spreading. This is also true for squamous cell skin cancer, the second most common form of skin cancer.

Research shows that a protein called GLUT1 acts like a food delivery truck. It transports glucose into a cell so it can be used for energy, keeping the cell healthy.

When cancer cells develop, they hijack the GLUT1 delivery system and gobble up glucose near them to get the energy they need to survive and grow. Scientists have found that stopping this process helps to starve cancer cells. But the problem is that it usually starves normal cells, too, which can be dangerous. So, some studies suggest stopping the GLUT1 delivery system may not be an effective treatment for cancer. 

The Research: In previous studies, Richard Wang, MD, PhD, and his team were surprised to discover that normal skin cells don’t need GLUT1 when they are developing. This finding led them to wonder if stopping the glucose transport process could prevent squamous cell skin cancer from developing without harming healthy skin cells.

Wang’s team is testing several drugs on the skin of mice with squamous cell skin cancer. The drugs, called GLUT1 inhibitors, help stop glucose from getting into the cancer cells while having limited effects on normal cells. The researchers are also testing how GLUT1 inhibitors work when combined with existing types of chemotherapy. 

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Wang hopes to show that stopping glucose transport can become a new treatment approach for skin cancer. He believes his work could also help scientists better understand the abnormal metabolism of all types of cancer.

To learn more about Dr. Wang's research, see: Learning How a Virus Causes a Rare, Aggressive Skin Cancer May Help Lead to New Treatments