Sugars: the Key to Cancer Immune Therapy

Oct 2 2017

There's the song from Mary Poppins about how a spoonful makes the medicine go down and yes, sugar in right quantity and right timing has a pleasant after buzz, a little perk me up. That little up doses the tiny downs that may happen in a regular day: your friend didn't call (or did) your partner is in a bad mood (or too good a mood), you still want that raise, that promotion...well, anytime we feel just a little under loved we're liable to reach for the sugar of the world to fix the blahs. 
Trouble is, we do that without thinking and that means our thinking get tangled up with the sugar. Literally. Scientists, those pesky interlopers into all human flaws and failings, have run tests that indicate sugar, on a regular basis, reacts in your brain the same way that booze does. So when you've joked in the past about being "a sugar addict" you've been hitting the truth. 
Our brains, particularly the amygdala (old brain, seat of primal passions and as it turns out, rewards) grows differently under the influence of much sugar. The difference is akin to the difference seen in the brains of those overly fond of alcohol. 
What remains to be understood is how much is too much, and what happens to old amyg if I just take one? (cookie, not the whole cake!) 
And also in today's podcast a brief summary of some really exciting news about Cancer Immune Therapy. Professor Caroline Bertozzi gives a great Ted talk about how the cells in our bodies are coated with sugar. It's not the same kind of sugar as the stuff above, but is a chemical sugar and it coats all the cells. 
Our white blood cells Bertozzi explains, approach other cells and taste them. Yes, that's right, just take a big ole bite out of the cell's coating to see if the taste is palatable. If the taste agrees, White Blood Cell carries on, looking for the next taste treat. 
If the taste is off, horrible, not good, White Blood Cell calls in the cavalry, gathers up the missiles and launches an attack: this is your healthy immune system cleansing your body of foreign invaders. 

Every cell in your body has a kind of sugar called sialic acid. Why an acid is called a sugar or a sugar an acid, defies me, but this is what the scientists call it. Sialic acid is in every cell of your body but in cancer cells, the sugar known as sialic acid lies on top of the cell in great profusion. 
Think of a forest, gently swaying with the usual amount of greenery as the normal amount of sugar on your cells. Now think of the Amazon rainforest, deeply dense and compacted with greenery. That's the sialic acid coating on the cancer cell. 
Your immune system, the White Blood Cell, approaches and tastes this sialic acid, but instead of registering this as foreign and distasteful, White Blood Cell falls asleep! 

You recall the sequence in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her friends begin to run through the field of poppies because they can see the Emerald City? Then they grow sleepy and lie down because the field is a field of opium and only Glinda the Good Witch can save them with snow? That's almost close to what happens here. 

The White Blood Cells fall asleep but no Glinda is around so the cancer cells just grow and grow. 

Now scientists are finding a way to mow down the extensive green growth (the poppy field in my analogy above) mow it right down so the White Blood Cell then recognizes the cancer cell as bad stuff, and sets the whole immune system to launch. 

It worked for former President Jimmy Carter. That fine man was told he had late stage malignant cancer that had metastasized to his brain. It's hard to imagine more difficult news about your health. Yet he was treated with immune therapy and now his cancer is in remission! 

Some people are calling this the Penicillin Moment for Cancer. I fervently hope so!

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