Human lung-tumour cells break down sugars in different ways in different patients and even in the same tumour.

Cells in the same tumour are known to vary genetically. To study tumour metabolism, Ralph DeBerardinis at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and his colleagues infused a harmless carbon isotope into nine people who had lung cancer, and combined clinical-imaging techniques with mass spectrometry to track how the carbon was biochemically processed by the tumours. Cancer cells are thought to feed on glucose and release a by-product called lactate, but the team found that some tumour cells consumed both lactate and glucose. Blood-flow patterns showed that different parts of a single tumour had varying metabolic patterns.

Understanding these patterns could help to improve metabolic therapy for cancer, the authors suggest.

Cell 164, 681–694 (2016)