Study Finds Novel Way to Starve Cancer Cells

A new study published in Science Advances has found a potential link between the amino acid arginine and cancer cells.

Researchers from Sohail Tavazoie’s Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology discovered that in various types of human cancers, arginine levels become limited, leading the cancer cells to manipulate proteins to efficiently take up the amino acid and other nutrients. As a result of this process, the cancer cells induce mutations that reduce their reliance on arginine.

Arginine plays an important role in processes such as protein synthesis and nitrogen waste disposal. It is also one of the few amino acids that has been shown to regulate the reaction of immune cells to cancer and other immunological triggers. People with conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and H. pylori infection have a higher risk of developing cancer due to low levels of arginine in their inflamed tissues.

The researchers documented thousands of codon mutations while combing through the Cancer Genome Atlas, and found that arginine codons were lost far more frequently than expected, particularly in stomach and colorectal cancers. In the lab, the researchers grew cancer cells and then deprived them of arginine. As the cells went through multiple rounds of cellular malnutrition, they began to mutate in order to secure access to the amino acid. Some cancer cells were successful in increasing the amount of amino acid transporter proteins, while others resorted to using more abundant amino acids in their environment.

The findings have the potential to have a significant impact on immunotherapy. The researchers believe that by depriving cancer cells of arginine, new mutations may emerge that can be recognized by the immune system, potentially rendering the cancer cells more vulnerable to the body’s natural immune response. While further research is needed, the study’s results are promising and may lead to new treatments for cancer in the future.