Where do cancer cells get the nutrients they need to survive?
Answer by CancerQuest - a cancer education project based at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Our goal is to empower cancer patients and caregivers with reliable information that is presented in an easy-to-understand way.
A: Cancer cells, like all cells, need a source of energy (sugar, fat, etc.) and building blocks to make more cells and cell parts. They get their supplies from the same places that other cells do, the space around them. Nutrients and oxygen are carried in the blood and then released into the areas around the blood vessels. Like smoke moving across a room, the nutrients and oxygen float away from the blood vessels and are taken up by the cells. The cells also produce waste products that go the other way (CO2 and other products). The waste is eliminated in our breath, urine or feces.
The need for nutrients is a crucial factor in the growth of tumors. Tumors can not get large enough to cause problems unless they develop their own blood supply, a process known as angiogenesis. The quest for nutrients and/or oxygen also stimulates cancer cells to move and can lead to cancer spread (metastasis).
Learn more about angiogenesis:http://www.cancerquest.org/angiogenesis.html
Learn more about metastasis: http://www.cancerquest.org/how-cancer-spreads-introduction.html
Lastly, many cancer cells DO seem to use energy differently than normal cells. While most of our cells use two different steps to get energy from sugar, cancer cells rely more on the first one (called glycolysis) and don’t use the second (called oxidative phosphorylation). This means that they are less efficient in extracting energy than normal cells. To survive, they need much more sugar. It is like a car getting less miles per gallon of fuel. They need more fuel to do the same thing (i.e. drive the same distance). This difference is currently being examined as a potential target for cancer treatment. It is also part of the reason why some cancer imaging methods, like PET scans work. PET scans begin with the patient being infused with radioactive sugar. The sugar accumulates in the cells that need it the most…cancer cells.