Durham, N.C. -- U.S. medical researchers say they've discovered why cancer cells like sugar so much -- a finding than might lead to better cancer treatments.

Duke University School of Medicine Assistant Professor Jeffrey Rathmell and graduate student Jonathan Coloff found that tumor cells use glucose as a way to avoid programmed cell death.

The cancer cells make use of a protein called Akt that promotes glucose metabolism. That, in turn, regulates a family of proteins critical for cell survival, the researchers said.

In normal cells, growth factors regulate metabolism and cell survival, they said. Removing those factors leads to loss of glucose uptake and metabolism, causing cell death. But they found cancer cells maintain glucose metabolism by utilizing Akt to maintain glucose usage, thereby resisting cell death even when deprived of growth factors.

The findings were presented Tuesday in San Diego during the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.