Research is the key to new discoveries in lung health and over the past decade, we've seen strides made in lung cancer treatment and care. Personalized treatment is advancing thanks to biomarker testing and targeted therapies. New methods of early detection with low-dose CT scans can increase the chances of survival for individuals at high risk. Still, we know more research is needed to defeat lung cancer.


Jung-whan Kim, Ph.D. of the University of Texas at Dallas is a recent American Lung Association research grant recipient who hopes to improve lung cancer treatments, particularly targeted therapies, by studying the connection between glucose (sugar) and squamous cell carcinoma, a type of lung cancer that accounts for 25 to 30 percent of all lung cancers. Kim and his team have found that sugar serves as an energy supply for this kind of lung cancer, aiding in the tumor's growth and survival. And upon further investigation, their research suggests that this "addiction" of squamous cell carcinoma to sugar could lead to treatment strategies by interrupting the body's process of metabolizing sugar or possibly even restricting the amount of sugar in a person’s diet. Kim's findings, "The distinct metabolic phenotype of lung squamous cell carcinoma defines selective vulnerability to glycolytic inhibition," were published in Nature Communications.

We talked with Dr. Kim to learn more about his research and findings.

Can you explain glycolytic inhibition?

Glycolytic inhibition is interference in the process of breaking down simple sugars (glucose) that circulate in the blood stream into smaller units to either release energy or turn into metabolism.

What led you to investigate glycolytic inhibition and squamous cell carcinoma in your research?

Although targeted therapy has dramatically improved treatment and survival of many lung cancer patients, squamous cell carcinoma patients are still often left with limited therapeutic options. Our efforts to search for targetable vulnerabilities in squamous cell carcinoma led to the discovery of a glycolytic signature—an exceptionally high sugar reliance for the tumor growth and survival.

What does this discovery mean?

We revealed that squamous cell carcinoma is uniquely addicted to high sugar consumption. Our research results suggest that squamous cell carcinoma may be vulnerable to inhibition of sugar metabolism and possibly dietary sugar restriction. Our study will open new avenues to design a strategy for a targeted therapy of squamous cell carcinoma with rapid opportunities for clinical use.

Kim’s findings suggest that scientists can explore a targeted therapy for squamous cell carcinoma that can include cutting sugar’s ability to feed a tumor.

How does it impact someone living with squamous cell carcinoma?

Our finding of glucose addiction in squamous cell carcinoma suggests that high blood glucose levels may have negative influence on survival and therapeutic effectiveness. Future work will focus on whether lifestyle choices, such as dietary glucose restriction, can positively affect patient outcomes, treatment response and improve quality of life.

Why is this study important in terms of lung cancer targeted therapy developments?

Cancer biologists have made great efforts to provide safer and more effective treatment options for cancer patients. Their efforts have led to the development of a new treatment standard designed to target unique molecular abnormalities of cancer cells. However, not all cancer patients are benefiting from this 'targeted cancer therapy.' Given that the prognosis of squamous cell carcinoma treated with conventional chemotherapies is very poor, it is important to identify and confirm targetable abnormalities that are uniquely associated with squamous cell carcinoma.

Why did you choose to work with the American Lung Association?

The American Lung Association has been instrumental in supporting education, advocacy, and research for lung cancer as well as various other lung diseases. With the support from the Lung Association, our group was able to focus on studying unique metabolic signature that can be exploited for a more effective therapeutic target to treat a deadly disease that lacks sufficient treatment strategies.

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