Tumor Growth and the 1931 Nobel Prize
Why do tumors grow?
Cancer has increasingly drawn the public eye, accounting for the third-most yearly deaths after heart disease and accident. Current cancer treatments are becoming more sophisticated, examining the role of communication between cancer cells and methods of using patients’ own immune systems to battle tumors.
But long before those developments, Otto Heinrich Warburg would win the 1931 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries related to the tumor growth.
The understanding of cancer’s development and origins has advanced considerably since Warburg won the Nobel Prize. But his research served as part of the foundation that led to modern cancer treatments.
Otto Heinrich Warburg and the growth of tumors
Otto Heinrich Warburg was born in 1883, and by 1911 had earned doctoral degrees in both chemistry and medicine.
His early research focused on oxygen consumption and the respiration of cells, and it was this entry point that led to his interest in tumor growth. Upon comparing tumors with normal cells, Warburg found that tumor cells generated energy and used oxygen quite differently from healthy ones.
In order to generate energy, cells break down a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Breaking this molecule down releases some of the energy it stores, providing energy for a variety of different actions.
Cancer cells and healthy cells both break down ATP, but the way in which they acquire ATP to break down is very different. Healthy cells use oxygen as a key component of a chemical process that creates ATP (which can then later be broken down for energy). Oxygen to fuel this reaction comes from the air, and humans acquire more oxygen by breathing.
Cancer cells, on the other hand, do not need oxygen to produce more ATP. Instead, they ferment sugars to create additional ATP.
This finding was significant because it indicated that the mitochondria, a part of the cell that creates energy, played a role in tumor growth. The result was significant enough that Warburg won the Nobel Prize in 1931.
In further research, Warburg proposed the “Warburg Hypothesis,” which was that this difference in energy creation actually caused cancer. Modern research confirms that there is a difference in respiration, but views the difference as resulting from genetic mutations, which are the true root causes of cancer.