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BIOBOARD
Cancer cells are addicted to methionine
Singapore scientists discover a nutrition pathway to stamp out the start of cancer

Scientists have discovered that cancer stem cells, the founder cells of a tumour, have unique nutrient requirements. Unlike the rest of the tumour cells, cancer stem cells are addicted to a type of dietary amino acid – methionine – which is linked to their ability to form tumours.

Methionine is an essential amino acid absorbed from diet for normal cell growth. However, a metabolite produced from it, S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), is involved in the regulation of critical gene functions in cancer stem cells. Importantly, this methionine metabolism pathway is controlled by a critical metabolic enzyme known as MAT2A (methionine adenoyltransferase 2A) that converts methionine to SAM.

This surprising discovery has implications on how one can develop better drugs against cancer. By specifically drugging this metabolic pathway, laboratory models of tumours are more effectively targeted compared to conventional treatment regimes.

The researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI) and oncologists at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) published their findings in Nature Medicine.

Dr Tam Wai Leong, the senior author of the study, Group Leader at the GIS and faculty member at Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, explained, “Cancer cells within a tumour are quite different from one another. Like human beings, they have different dietary preferences from each other. Through this study, we discovered that the cancer stem cells are addicted to a particular nutrient – methionine. By blocking the ability of the cancer stem cells to use this amino acid with potential anti-cancer therapeutics, we are able to effectively halt the growth of a tumour.”

“MAT2A is an interesting enzyme that controls the metabolism of cancer cells. From our findings, this enzyme represents an important new drug target, as its inhibition led to the ablation of cancer stem cells. This paves the way for the development of next-generation drugs that target this dependence on methionine,” said Dr Wang Zhenxun, the first author of this study.

The research is supported by A*STAR, and the National Medical Research Council’s Large Collaborative Grant for fighting lung cancer.

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