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Retina Metabolism Resembles Cancer

The discovery that the human retina uses energy in a very similar way to cancer could lead to improved understanding of cancers as well as eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

“The retina contains specialised nerve cells and is considered part of the brain, but we’ve discovered that the way it processes energy is much more similar to a cancer cell than a brain cell,” says Prof Robert Casson of The University of Adelaide, who led the research published in Clinical & Experimental Ophthalmology.

“Cancer cells use glucose to generate energy and to make building materials so they can divide and grow,” Casson explains.“The retina doesn’t divide and grow, but it does have similar requirements for energy production. It needs to make large amounts of a protein which detects light and is constantly renewed so that we can keep seeing.

“Cancer cells have a special molecule which switches the cell metabolism between energy production and growth. The molecule, called PKM2, is used as a marker of some types of cancer. We’ve discovered that the same molecule exists in the retina.

“PKM2 is also thought to be involved in the formation of cancers. But the adult retina doesn’t get cancer. What stops cancer formation in the retina?”

Casson says the findings raise a number of interesting questions. “Could abnormalities of this system cause retinal diseases? If so, new treatments could be developed for blinding diseases like macular degeneration.”

Casson also cautions about the development of anti-cancer drugs that inhibit PKM2. “They should be aware of possible effects to the retina and vision,” he says.