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Fructose under fire over pancreatic cancer link

01 March 2011

Fructose, a form of sugar added to thousands of foods and soft drinks, has caused a stir after researchers from the University of California discovered it is seized on with relish by pancreatic cancer cells. By DAVID STRYDOM

Pancreatic cancer is one of the biggest killers because symptoms take so long to develop that by the time it's diagnosed, it's usually too late for the patient.

In fact, this vicious form of cancer is regarded as one of the deadliest - many die within six months of diagnosis. This is one reason medical research is urgently searching for its causes so it can be combated.

So when researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles discovered fructose triggers pancreatic cells to grow more quickly, there was much excitement.

How did the researchers discover this? The researchers took pancreatic tumours from patients and grew the cells in petri dishes. They then added glucose to one set of cells and fructose to another. They used a technique to enable them to follow the sugars in the cells to find out what they were being used for.

The research indicated the cancer cells grew at fructose concentrations at a similar rate to glucose. Crucially, the data showed the cells used fructose and sucrose differently, even though they are similarly structured.

Worse, the researchers deduced that compared to glucose, fructose was a potent activator of a key cellular pathway that drives cancer cell division. And not only did cancer cells prefer fructose, the study showed, but the sugar also triggered cellular activities that enabled malignant cells to use both glucose and fructose more rapidly.

The consequences of this are profound. Press reports seized on the findings, pointing out everyday favourites such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, lemonade, sweetened iced tea, biscuits, tomato sauce, salad dressings, cereal bars and frozen dinners.

While many people will simply shrug and claim with some justification that ''everything will end up killing you'', the fear of pancreatic cancer should be real for those who have a family history of the disease, as well as those who smoke, those with diabetes or those who drink more than 30g of alcohol per day over the long-term.

Since the research was released, however, there has been a backlash from some quarters. One report on PR Newswire, for instance, says cancer cells are well known for having multiple mechanisms to escape the body's normal controls, which in controlled laboratory studies are poor models for generating meaningful results.

The PR Newswire report further stated the study did not look at how fructose was consumed by humans as it was conducted in a laboratory, not inside the human body. In addition, the study was accused of ''narrowly comparing pure fructose to pure glucose, neither of which is consumed in isolation in the human diet''. 

Nonetheless, food processors will be hoping the report doesn't lead to something more substantial. Fructose is found in table sugars, soft drinks, fruit drinks, biscuits, tomato sauce, salad dressings, cereal bars and frozen dinners.

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