Leading change

Sweet connection between cancer and sugar

The inaugural lecture of Prof Monde Ntwasa, Department of Life and Consumer Sciences, titled Anti-cancer drug discovery and development: Targeting the sweet tooth of cancer, took place on 3 August 2017.

Cancer cells consume 12 times more sugar than normal cells, said Ntwasa. Otto Warburg observed this phenomenon for the first time in 1924. However, scientists failed to recognise it as a major factor in the development of cancer for more than 50 years.

In recent years, scientists acquired renewed interest in sugar, realising that it is important in understanding the development of cancer. Furthermore, it appears that there are opportunities for exploiting it in developing anticancer treatments.

Ntwasa investigated strategies for the protection of normal cells undergoing chemotherapy since this treatment cannot discriminate well between cancer and normal cells. Hence, chemotherapy is  a harsh treatment, causing patients to suffer from many side-effects such as damage to their reproductive system, loss of hair, or damage to the digestive system, e.g. diarrhoea.

“For convenience, we used the fruit fly as a model for our studies since it has comparable genetics to humans. We found that normal cells draw on glucose metabolism when they recover from chemotherapy. This prompted us to test possible interventions by disturbing glucose metabolism in human cancer cells. We found that when we sabotage the unusual glucose usage phenomenon in cancer cells we are able to kill them and preserve normal cells.”

Ntwasa said that this strategy was, therefore, a promising strategy for protecting the serious side-effects suffered by cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy. He proposed a treatment that could help reduce these harsh side-effects during chemotherapy.

If you could be any animal in the world, what animal would you be and why?

A lion. I ♥ lions; they are beautiful and majestic. They symbolise strength, bravery, and excellent leadership and nobility.

What’s playing in your car right now?

Listening to Umhobo Wenene FM

Besides work, what are your passions?

Reading books, mostly select biographies by outstanding personalities.

What keeps you enthused about your career?

Finding new knowledge.

What’s the number one skill or practice that has contributed to your success?

Managing teams.

*Compiled by Sharon Farrell