Does mTOR “Cause Cancer”? Does AMPK “Prevent Cancer”? It’s Not That Simple

by Nils Osmar. Nov. 15, 2022. Medical Disclaimer

When thinking about mTOR, AMPK and cancer, one key thing to be aware of is that there’s a profound difference between the two metabolic pathways. In short, mTOR is anabolic; AMPK is catabolic.

Being anabolic means that mTOR activation supports growth of all kinds of cells.

One the one hand, this can be beneficial. When we eat foods that activate mTOR, we are supporting the growth of healthy body cells, including muscle cells, and keeping our immune systems strong.

But there are conditions under which mTOR activation can support the growth of cancer cells, and turning it off can be beneficial. See study: mTOR signaling: implications for cancer and anticancer therapy.

This is why rapamycin (which suppresses mTOR) is sometimes used in cancer therapy.

Does mTOR cause cancer?

I have not seen any evidence suggesting that mTOR activation “causes” cancer. mTOR is a metabolic pathway necessary to our very existence; it’s not a carcinogen like cigarette smoke. Turning mTOR on doesn’t magically turn healthy cells into cancer cells.

It can, however, cause problems (including pushing things in the direction of cancer) in abnormal cells. From a study called mTOR signaling pathway and mTOR inhibitors in cancer:

Under normal circumstances, mTOR is a major regulator of cell growth and division. However, in tumor cells, abnormally activated mTOR sends signals that encourage tumor cells to grow, metastasize, and invade new healthy tissues.

Among them, PI3K/phosphate and fungi homology deleted on chromosome 10 (PTEN)/AKT/TSC pathway is the main activator of mTORC1, and gene mutations in this pathway can lead to malignant tumors,

So – shorter answer – in folks who have actively growing tumors, there is evidence that turning on mTOR can cause both tumor cells to grow faster.

For this reason, some individuals with cancer might benefit from cautiously reducing mTOR activation. (I say “cautiously” because mTOR also supports strong immune systems, and a healthy immune system should in theory kill cancer cells before they can become tumors.)

Is AMPK always anti-cancer?

Not always, and not necessarily.

AMPK (mTOR’s opposite number) is catabolic, and is associated with autophagy, another process that can clear cancer cells (and precancerous senescent cells) out of the body.

However, AMPK activation is. not always anti-cancer. From a study called The mixed blessing of AMPK signaling in Cancer treatments:

Studies in animal models and humans have suggested that compounds that activate AMPK have health-promoting effects, including improvements in diabetes, cardiovascular health, and mitochondrial disease, and even extension in life span [21,22,23,24].

However, the role of AMPK in tumorigenesis is controversial: while studies have suggested that AMPK suppresses cancer cell proliferation and tumor formation, recent evidence also suggests that AMPK can promote T-ALL tumor cell growth through cell energy maintenance in some model organisms [2627].

Further complicating the picture, a direct link between AMPK and mTORC2 was recently discovered [28,29,30], which reveals the ability of AMPK to promote cell survival under energetic stress situations and emphasizes the strong interplay between anabolism and catabolism regulators: AMPK and the mTORC family [29]…

How to activate mTOR and AMPK

There are many ways to activate mTOR. In a nutshell, anything that raises our insulin (like sweets) can activate it. So can eating foods high in calories, high in protein; or eating more animal-based diets (because animal foods are higher in leucine, an mTOR activator).

We can activate AMPK by fasting; exercising; taking AMPK-activating supplements like glucosamine or berberine; taking rapamycin; taking metformin; or eating more plant-based diets.

What I’m doing

I view both mTOR and AMPK as beneficial (given the right circumstances). For health and muscle growth I activate mTOR periodically. For autophagy and longevity, I activate AMPK the rest of the time.

To activate mTOR (periodically), I make sure some meals are high in protein and high in leucine by eating animal-based foods (meat, fish, eggs, fermented dairy such as yogurt and kefir and raw dairy which has been tested and certified as being safe for consumption). I also take whey powder, which both raises glutathione and activates mTOR due to its high leucine content.

To activate AMPK, I do a lot of fasting (often eating just one meal a day, or skipping eating entirely for a day or two), and often eat plant-based meals.

In reporting on my protocol and the reasoning behind it, I’m not advising others on what protocol to follow (see medical disclaimer below). I’m just explaining my current approach.

I can say that, speaking only for myself, if I had a diagnosis of cancer, I would probably shift my diet in a more catabolic direction, i.e., a larger proportion of plant based foods. (And I would use any medical treatment which showed promise of helping.) But I would talk to my doctor first to clarify whether the type of cancer I was dealing with had been shown to respond best to mTOR or AMPK activation (if either).

Not medical advice

This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplements, just reporting on what I’m doing. All supplements can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen.  See full Medical Disclaimer

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