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Cancer cells exhibit altered metabolism compared with that of the surrounding tissue. There is hope that these reprogrammed metabolic pathways in tumors hold the key to advances for both cancer imaging and therapy. Translation of observations in cultured cancer cells to live tumors, however, has proven to be highly complex, and robust methods to analyze metabolic activity in primary human tumors are sorely needed. In this issue of the JCI, Sellers et al. use perioperative administration of isotope-labeled glucose to lung cancer patients to differentiate metabolic pathways between tumors and benign lung. They identify pyruvate carboxylation, a reaction that enables glucose-derived carbon to replenish TCA cycle intermediates, as a key component of anabolic metabolism in tumor cells.