Unraveling a Century-Old Secret – The Hidden Mechanism Connecting Diabetes and Cancer

Cancer Cell Biology Illustration

A new study reveals that cancer cells respond poorly to insulin, leading to insulin resistance, which can cause cancer cells to multiply faster and affect muscle mass, emphasizing the negative link between cancer and insulin resistance. The research encourages oncologists to vigilantly monitor blood sugar levels in cancer patients and calls for more studies to explore effective treatments and identify at-risk groups.

Researchers have discovered that insulin resistance, typically linked with type 2 diabetes, is also present in cancer patients and can accelerate the spread of the disease.

In the 1920s, scientists found that the urine of cancer patients had a sweet odor. Initially, this left doctors perplexed, but they quickly realized that it was due to increased levels of blood sugar.

“This was one of the first things we learned about cancer patients,” says Associate Professor Lykke Sylow.

The sweet-smelling urine suggested that cancer affects the body’s blood sugar level. But how? A new study is ready to answer that question. Where previous studies have examined the connection between cancer and insulin, Lykke Sylow and colleagues’ new study is the first to compile the best research on the topic, and the answer seems to be clear:

“In cancer patients, the cells do not respond well to the hormone insulin. It therefore takes more insulin to create the same effect in cancer patients. If you suffer from insulin resistance, your body has to produce more insulin than usual to be able to regulate the blood sugar,” says Lykke Sylow, who is one of the main authors of the new study.

And the body’s ability to respond to insulin is impaired in both cancer patients and people with type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes such as fatigue and increased thirst and urination develop gradually and can therefore be hard to spot. And in cancer patients, insulin resistance can be even harder to identify as they already experience some of these symptoms, e.g. fatigue.

About the study

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 15 studies of insulin sensitivity and cancer. This included 187 patients suffering from different types of cancer, including lung and colon cancer, and 154 control subjects.

They only included studies applying the so-called gold standard, which is a very precise way of analyzing insulin sensitivity in humans.

Insulin can cause cancer cells to multiply

Aside from the negative consequences of insulin resistance, the condition can also cause cancer cells to multiply.

“We know from cell studies, animal studies, and some human studies that insulin is a growth hormone and that it has the same effect on cancer cells. That is, a high level of insulin can make cancer cells grow faster,” says the second main author of the study, Joan Màrmol, and adds:

“Of course, this can be a huge problem for cancer patients.”

Furthermore, insulin resistance can influence the build-up of proteins in the muscles. That is, if the body fails to respond to insulin, it will lose muscle mass and strength, and that is a huge problem for a lot of cancer patients.

All in all, cancer and insulin resistance is a really bad combination.

Lykke Sylow hopes oncologists will begin to check patients’ blood sugar level – even when it appears to be normal because insulin resistance can be hard to spot as the body will simply compensate by producing more insulin.

“And if they do find that the patient suffers from insulin resistance, they need to start treating it. We are able to treat insulin resistance because we have in-depth knowledge of the condition – we are just used to associating it with type 2 diabetes.”

Aspects of the connection require more research, though.

“The next step is trying to determine who develops insulin resistance. Which cancer patients are at risk here? Do they have a particular type of cancer or specific risk factors? Or is it perhaps connected with the treatment?” Lykke Sylow says and adds:

“And once we have identified those at high risk of developing the condition, I hope to see more long-term studies of insulin resistance treatment and whether it has a positive effect on the patients.”

Reference: “Insulin resistance in patients with cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis” by Joan M. Màrmol, Michala Carlsson, Steffen H. Raun, Mia K. Grand, Jonas Sørensen, Louise Lang Lehrskov, Erik A. Richter and Ole Norgaard, 12 April 2023, Acta Oncologica.
DOI: 10.1080/0284186X.2023.2197124

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