Liver cancer is the fifth most common and the third most lethal cancer in Hong Kong. Photo: Yale Rosen.

​​New metabolic route explains liver cancer cell adaptability

10 June 2022

​​Research led by Dr Carmen Wong Chak Lui (Croucher Innovation Award 2017) of the University of Hong Kong, has identified a mechanism in which liver cancer cells can grow without a sufficient supply of oxygen.

Cancer cells rely on oxygen to fuel their own growth. However, the oxygen content in solid tumours is usually lower than normal organs, due to the abnormally high growth speed of tumours far exceeding the growth of blood vessels.

Wong and her team found that liver cancer cells are able to adapt to this oxygen deprivation by instigating a metabolic programme dependent on macropinocytosis, an endocytic pathway that allows cells to engulf extracellular proteins as fuel to support its growth. This mechanism helps liver cancer cells to adapt under nutrient stress. The study also showed that therapeutically targeting the macropinocytosis pathway could suppress liver cancer effectively.

“Liver cancer has poor prognosis, partly because its cancer cells are smart enough to find ways to survive in deprived conditions. Understanding the biology and metabolism of liver cancer is fundamental to identifying effective therapeutic targets and treatments,” said Wong.

“Hypoxia is not limited to liver cancer, but all solid cancers. Therefore, our findings also apply to other types of cancer.”

The findings have been published in Nature Communications.