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New UCLA study could lead to treatments for cancer and other diseases

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A new UCLA study on cell metabolism could lead to treatments for viral infections as well as cancer. A research team led by Minh Thai, a post-doctoral scholar, and Heather Christofk, an assistant professor of molecular and medical pharmacology, published their findings online on April 1 in the journal Cell Metabolism.

The study authors note that their study is the first to explain how viruses reprogram the cells they invade to promote their continued growth within an organism. They explain that their findings could have implications in cancer treatments based the on similarities between viruses and cancer cell mechanisms; thus, they could possibly lead to the development of drugs that could inhibit viruses, such as the one that causes the common cold.

The investigators note that a cell’s metabolism basically entails processes that go on within the cell, which are a group of physical and chemical events that feed and maintain the cell, allow it to reproduce, and eventually decide when it will die off and be replaced by its daughter cells. When a virus infects a cell, it initiates changes in the cell’s metabolism; thus, reprogramming the cell in such a manner that it stimulates maintenance and reproduction of the virus. It is known that viruses reprogram cells; however, the molecular mechanisms that a virus uses to accomplish this were previously unknown.

Past studies have reported that when normal cells degenerate into cancer cells, they are reprogrammed to act in a somewhat similar manner to that of virus-infected cells. This means that the cells alter their metabolism to support the maintenance and reproduction of these altered cells; thus, the cancer cells spread. Dr. Christofk explained, “In our laboratory, we’ve always been interested in how cancer cells acquire metabolic changes compared to normal cells. We decided to look at viruses and how they change the metabolism of cells they invade, because we thought they might be using mechanisms similar to those in cancer cells, and that there might be some crossover in the way the mechanisms work.” He added, “We hoped that by finding out how viruses reprogram cell metabolism we could learn more about how cancer cells do it.”

The research team found that an adenovirus, which causes the common cold, reprograms the cell it invades to be able to absorb more glucose, which is an important nutrient for cells and viruses. The virus also reprograms the cell to increase its use of the glucose to increase energy and biomass (grow larger). These metabolic changes empower the virus to begin replicating inside the cell; thus, explaining how the virus reprograms the cells to its own benefit. Dr. Thai explained, “With this knowledge we hope to begin designing drugs that can inhibit the increased glucose uptake in these cells. This could lead to drugs that stop the growth of viral infections, the most common being like cold or flu, but also meningitis or some types of pneumonia. Then it might be possible to use the same type of drug to stop the growth of cancer cells.”

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