The Oxygen-Cancer Connection

The Oxygen-Cancer Connection


The Oxygen-Cancer Connection

The Oxygen-Cancer Connection

Did you know that cancer is responsible for about 1 out of every six deaths worldwide? This staggering statistic means that cancer claims more lives than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. Shockingly, it currently holds the position of being the second leading cause of death on a global scale, following cardiovascular diseases.

The National Cancer Institute defines cancer as a “disease in which some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body.”

The relationship between oxygen and cancer is a bit more complex and has been the subject of decades of research.

So, what’s the role of oxygen? 

When you inhale, oxygen enters the lungs and then travels through the bloodstream, nourishing cells across the body. Cancer cells also need oxygen to survive and that’s why tumors form new blood vessels (angiogenesis). As tumors grow rapidly, they outgrow the oxygen supply. However, this doesn’t always hinder their growth. Research indicates that certain cancers can thrive and resist treatment in oxygen-deprived conditions.

Your body has an oxygen-sensing mechanism that helps your body monitor and adapt to changes in oxygen levels and ensures that the cells receive an adequate supply of oxygen. The major component of this oxygen sensing system is Hypoxia Inducible Factors. These HIFs play an important role in responding to the body’s demand for more oxygen by activating genes and proteins for the development of new networks of blood vessels.

In the context of cancer, growing tumors can adapt to hypoxia by hijacking these HIFs for their survival. The HIFs can instigate the creation of new blood vessels to enhance oxygen supply. HIFs also alter how cancer cells metabolize glucose, enabling them to derive energy even in oxygen-deprived conditions.

Hypoxic cancer cells acquire additional capabilities, including metastasis (spreading beyond their origin) and resistance to chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The exact mechanisms by which hypoxic tumors acquire these harmful capabilities remain only partially understood. HIF activation is a contributing factor. Hypoxia in tumors also plays a significant role in their resistance to immunotherapy.

Furthermore, cancer cells adapt to hypoxic environments by using an alternative chemical pathway for energy production–one that does not rely on oxygen.

Does Exposure to Oxygen Worsen Cancer?


The National Cancer Institute clarifies that “exposure to air will not make tumors grow faster or cause cancer to spread to other parts of the body.”

Clinical Studies on Oxygen-Cancer Connection

Over 70 years ago, Dr. Otto Warburg observed that cells subjected to periods of hypoxia could be transformed into cancerous cells, highlighting a significant link between oxygen levels and cancer development. Simply put, the primary source of cancer is when the normal body cells stop using oxygen for energy and switch to the process of sugar fermentation. 

A 2012 study highlighted how accelerated cell proliferation in metastatic cells can intensify hypoxia levels, potentially creating a vicious cycle that promotes cancer's aggressive behavior. 

Clinical observations reveal a strong correlation between the oxygen status of tumors and patient survival rates. A study involving patients with nonmetastatic, high-grade soft tissue sarcomas found that those with higher median tumor oxygen pressure (pO2) values (>10 mm Hg) had a significantly higher 18-month disease-free survival rate (70%) compared to those with lower median pO2 values (<10 mm Hg, 35%). 

A 2015 study analyzed the role of hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) in the context of cancer progression and therapy resistance. It explored how HIFs contribute to the aggressive behavior of cancer cells under hypoxic conditions, providing insights into potential therapeutic strategies targeting HIFs in cancer treatment. 

A 2005 study examined the impact of hypoxia (low oxygen levels) on the development of cancer and the behavior of cancer cells. It underscored the importance of understanding the role of hypoxia in cancer progression and suggested potential therapeutic avenues for targeting hypoxic tumor environments.

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