Eli5: What is the the Warburg effect and what’s the scientists opinion on it?


Eli5: What is the the Warburg effect and what’s the scientists opinion on it?

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Your cells need to break down glucose for energy. There are different pathways that can do this. One pathway is the citric acid cycle followed by oxidative phosphorylation. I don’t want to be too complex here, the main thing you need to know is that oxidative phosphorylation requires a lot of oxygen, takes place in the mitochondria, and is able to break down glucose all the way to carbon dioxide. This makes a lot of energy for the cell to use. There is an alternative pathway using some processes called glycolysis and lactic acid fermentation that can break down glucose into lactic acid. This yields much less energy for the cell to use but doesn’t need oxygen and can take place outside the mitochondria.

Normally your cells will use the citric acid cycle and oxidative phosphorylation because they want to get as much energy as possible per glucose molecule. You could think of the glycolysis pathway as a backup that cells use if they don’t have oxygen or something is wrong with the mitochondria. The Warburg effect is that cancer cells will almost always use glycolysis, even when they have plenty of oxygen and normal mitochondria.

What do you mean by opinion? Are you asking if scientists agree that it is a thing? It’s the basis of PET scans to diagnose tumors and Warburg won the Nobel prize for the discovery, and it has been very well documented. We don’t know exact mechanism. There’s another model called the reverse Warburg effect that’s too complex to explain here but still relies on cancer cells using glycolysis for most of their energy. A third model called the inverse Warburg effect in which cancer cells would use a different process with fatty acids that go through the oxidative phosphorylation pathway, but this is only seen in obese people and is because as you get fatter there are more nutrients and stuff available in your blood. But short answer Warburg effect is very well documented and used successfully for diagnostic procedures, I’m not aware of any scientists doubting it is a thing.

Edit: clarified that oxidative phosphorylation takes place in mitochondria.