The mTOR complex 1 (mTORC1) controls cell growth in response to amino acid levels1. Here we report SAR1B as a leucine sensor that regulates mTORC1 signalling in response to intracellular levels of leucine. Under conditions of leucine deficiency, SAR1B inhibits mTORC1 by physically targeting its activator GATOR2. In conditions of leucine sufficiency, SAR1B binds to leucine, undergoes a conformational change and dissociates from GATOR2, which results in mTORC1 activation. SAR1B–GATOR2–mTORC1 signalling is conserved in nematodes and has a role in the regulation of lifespan. Bioinformatic analysis reveals that SAR1B deficiency correlates with the development of lung cancer. The silencing of SAR1B and its paralogue SAR1A promotes mTORC1-dependent growth of lung tumours in mice. Our results reveal that SAR1B is a conserved leucine sensor that has a potential role in the development of lung cancer.