The Diabetes-Cancer Link

Scientists have long noted a statistical connection between diabetes and cancer, but research explaining this connection has eluded scientists. Until now.

Recently, Prof. Mingming Wu of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, along with a group of colleagues, explored the relationship between diabetes and cancer. During the course of their research, the scientists discovered a fundamental new insight into the workings of this modern-day killer.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the Western world. Diabetes affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and is directly associated with cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death worldwide — as well as an increased risk of stroke, blindness, and other diseases. According to the National Eye Institute, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in American adults.

According to Dr. Wu, “Cancer and diabetes are two of the worst health problems in developed countries, and there’s a link between the two. […] For cancer, half of the story is still in genetics. It’s only recently we realized there is another half that we missed, which is the microenvironment.”

The microenvironment is the fundamental breakthrough that Dr. Wu and his colleagues discovered. The idea is that the spread of cancer (metastasis) is highly dependent on the biological environment surrounding the cancer. As it turns out, diabetes helps to create an environment which increases the ability of cancer cells to migrate to other areas of the body.

In order for tumor cells to travel from a primary site, they have to navigate the “extracellular matrix”, the network which provides structure to the cells of the body. Two of the fundamental components of this matrix are collagen and glycoproteins. Dr. Wu and his team were able to demonstrate that elevated levels of blood sugar in people with diabetes affect the structure of the collagen fibers of the extracellular matrix in a way that makes it easier for cancer cells to travel along this network.

According to Young Joon Suh, one of the authors of this study, “People with diabetes have higher blood sugar levels, which lead to glycation and changes the structure of the collagen in the tissue. […] If they happen to have cancer, this glycation process promotes the rate of metastasizing.”

The results of the team’s study were published in the journal Integrative Biology. For the purposes of their study, the researchers analyzed how cancer cells from breast cancer tumors developed in environments with different levels of glycation. Their research demonstrated unequivocally that cancer cells had an increased ability to move faster and to travel farther when their environment had higher glycation levels.

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