Cancer as a metabolic disease

Cancer as a metabolic disease

Thomas N Seyfried and Laura M Shelton

Biology Department, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, US


Emerging evidence indicates that impaired cellular energy metabolism is the defining characteristic of nearly all cancers regardless of cellular or tissue origin.

In contrast to normal cells, which derive most of their usable energy from oxidative phosphorylation, most cancer cells become heavily dependent on substrate level phosphorylation to meet energy demands.

Evidence is reviewed supporting a general hypothesis that genomic instability and essentially all hallmarks of cancer, including aerobic glycolysis (Warburg effect), can be linked to impaired mitochondrial function and energy metabolism. A view of cancer as primarily a metabolic disease will impact approaches to cancer management and prevention.

Implications of the hypothesis to cancer prevention

If impaired mitochondrial energy metabolism underlies the origin of most cancers as proposed here, then protecting mitochondria from damage becomes a logical and simple approach for preventing cancer. It is well documented that the incidence of cancer can be significantly reduced by avoiding exposure to those agents or conditions that provoke tissue inflammation such as smoking, alcohol, carcinogenic chemicals, ionizing radiation, obesity etc [1,25,298].

Chronic inflammation, regardless of origin, damages tissue morphogenetic fields that eventually produce neoplastic cells [123,124,166]. Part of this tissue damage will involve injury to the mitochondria in the affected cells. The prevention of inflammation and damage to the tissue microenvironment will go far in reducing the incidence of most cancers.

Vaccines against some oncogenic viruses can also reduce the incidence of cancers, as these viruses can damage mitochondria in infected tissues. Hence, simply reducing exposure to cancer risk factors, which produce chronic inflammation and mitochondrial damage, will reduce the incidence of at least 80% of all cancers [1,25]. In principle, there are few chronic diseases more easily preventable than cancer.

In addition to avoiding exposure to established cancer risk factors, the metabolism of ketone bodies protects the mitochondria from inflammation and damaging ROS. ROS production increases naturally with age and damages cellular proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. Accumulation of ROS decreases the efficiency of mitochondrial energy production.

The origin of mitochondrial ROS comes largely from the spontaneous reaction of molecular oxygen (O2) with the semiquinone radical of coenzyme Q, .QH, to generate the superoxide radical O2-. [40,84,299]. Coenzyme Q is a hydrophobic molecule that resides in the inner mitochondrial membrane and is essential for electron transfer.

Ketone body metabolism increases the ratio of the oxidized form to the fully reduced form of coenzyme Q (CoQ/CoQH2) [40]. Oxidation of the coenzyme Q couple reduces the amount of the semiquinone radical, thus decreasing superoxide production [84].

Since the cytosolic free NADP+/NADPH concentration couple is in near equilibrium with the glutathione couple, ketone body metabolism will also increase the reduced form of glutathione thus facilitating destruction of hydrogen peroxide [10,84,300].

The reduction of free radicals through ketone body metabolism will therefore reduce tissue inflammation provoked by ROS while enhancing the energy efficiency of mitochondria. Ketone bodies are not only a more efficient metabolic fuel than glucose, but also possess anti-inflammatory potential.

Metabolism of ketone bodies for energy will maintain mitochondrial health and efficiency thus reducing the incidence of cancer.

The simplest means of initiating the metabolism of ketone bodies is through dietary energy restriction with adequate nutrition. It is important to emphasize adequate nutrition, as calorie restriction associated with malnutrition can potentially increase cancer incidence [301-303].

Consequently, consumption of foods containing the active groups of respiratory enzymes (iron salts, riboflavin, nicotinamide, and pantothenic acid) could be effective in maintaining health when combined with dietary energy restriction [25].

The lowering of circulating glucose levels through calorie restriction facilitates the uptake and metabolism of ketone bodies for use as an alternative respiratory fuel [84,273,278]. The metabolism of ketone bodies increases succinate dehydrogenase activity while enhancing the overall efficiency of energy production through respiration [304,305].

In essence, dietary energy restriction and ketone body metabolism delays entropy [270]. As cancer is a disease of accelerated entropy [8,25], dietary energy restriction targets the very essence of the disease.

It is well documented that dietary energy restriction can reduce the incidence of both inherited and acquired cancers in experimental animals [256,258,306-309]. Evidence also indicates that dietary energy restriction can reduce the incidence of several human cancers [310,311].

The implementation of periodic dietary energy restriction, which targets multiple cancer provoking factors, can be a simple and cost effective life-style change that is capable of reducing the incidence of cancer. Dietary energy restriction in rodents, however, is comparable to water only therapeutic fasting or to very low caloric diets (500-600 kcal/day) in humans [270].

In light of this fact, it remains to be determined if members of our species are willing or motivated enough to adopt the life style changes necessary to prevent cancer.


Evidence is reviewed supporting a general hypothesis that cancer is primarily a disease of energy metabolism. All of the major hallmarks of the disease can be linked to impaired mitochondrial function. In order to maintain viability, tumor cells gradually transition to substrate level phosphorylation using glucose and glutamine as energy substrates. While cancer causing germline mutations are rare, the abundance of somatic genomic abnormalities found in the majority of cancers can arise as a secondary consequence of mitochondrial dysfunction.

Once established, somatic genomic instability can contribute to further mitochondrial defects and to the metabolic inflexibility of the tumor cells. Systemic metastasis is the predicted outcome following protracted mitochondrial damage to cells of myeloid origin. Tumor cells of myeloid origin would naturally embody the capacity to exit and enter tissues. Two major conclusions emerge from the hypothesis; first that many cancers can regress if energy intake is restricted and, second, that many cancers can be prevented if energy intake is restricted.

Consequently, energy restricted diets combined with drugs targeting glucose and glutamine can provide a rational strategy for the longer-term management and prevention of most cancers.

Nutrition & Metabolism 2010, 7:7doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-7

The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at:

2010 Seyfried and Shelton; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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