In 1924, German biochemist Otto Warburg observed that cancer cells are extraordinarily greedy. Tumours tend to grow rapidly, so it made sense that they had outsized appetites. But Warburg also found that the way they burned, or metabolised, the resources they gobbled so hungrily was different. He was convinced that this change in metabolism defined cancer – and figuring out what drove it would let us beat the disease.
His idea caught on. For much of the 20th century, Warburg’s altered metabolism idea guided approaches to understanding and treating cancer. That all changed in the 1970s, with the discovery that certain gene mutations can cause cancer – and with it a sea change in how we might tackle the disease. Target the genes responsible, the new thinking went, and we could stop cancer in its tracks. Warburg’s ideas largely fell by the wayside.