Study Reveals How Sugar May Increase Cancer Risks

Scientists suggest that a chemical produced when the body breaks down sugar may play a role in cancer development.

Whether sugar "feeds" cancer has been the subject of debate among health experts and scientists for decades. For example, some say that obesity, caused by a high-sugar diet, is what increases a person's risk of cancer, while other researchers suggest that sugar alters cancer risk, independent of obesity, through the activation of inflammation, glucose, and lipid metabolic pathways.

Yet, how sugar, or glucose, might activate pathways associated with the development of cancer is unclear.

Recently, scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) dug deeper into the possible connections between consuming a poor diet and cancer risks. They found that a chemical produced when the body breaks down sugar may trigger faulty DNA and increase the risk of cancer over time.

Their findings were published on April 11 in Cell.

In the first part of their investigation, the scientists studied people who inherited mutations in the BRCA2 gene — a gene that increases an individual's risk of breast or ovarian cancer.

They discovered that the cells of people with this faulty BRCA2 gene were sensitive to the effects of methylglyoxal—a byproduct of glycolysis, the metabolic process that converts glucose into energy for cells. The researchers also found that methylglyoxal can cause errors in DNA that can be early signs of cancer development.

Moreover, the study revealed that even those without the BRCA2 gene mutation, including people with pre-diabetes or diabetes, could also have high levels of methylglyoxal. Both conditions are linked to poor diet and obesity and similar DNA warning signs of potential cancer risks.

"Our research suggests that patients with high methylglyoxal levels may have higher cancer risk. Methylglyoxal can be easily detected by a blood test for HbA1C, which could potentially be used as a marker. Furthermore, high methylglyoxal levels can usually be controlled with medicines and a good diet, creating avenues for proactive measures against the initiation of cancer," the study's lead scientist, Professor Ashok Venkitaraman, Director of CSI Singapore, explained in a press release.

In addition to DNA errors, the researchers found that methylglyoxal can temporarily inactivate specific cancer-preventing genes. The team says this finding suggests that consuming a poor diet or having uncontrolled diabetes can trigger repeated gene inactivation and increase cancer risk over time.

Since the study was conducted via lab experiments, the scientists say their findings need to be tested in rodents and further investigated in clinical studies. However, the results highlight how dietary choices, such as consuming a diet high in sugar, may impact an individual's risk of cancer.

The study's first author, Dr. Li Ren Kong, a Lee Kuan Yew Fellow from the NUS Centre for Cancer Research, said, "We started the study aiming to understand what factors elevate risk in families susceptible to cancer, but ended up discovering a deeper mechanism linking an essential energy consumption pathway to cancer development. These findings raise awareness of the impact of diet and weight control in the management of cancer risks."

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