AMPK Is a Negative Regulator of the Warburg Effect and Suppresses Tumor Growth In Vivo
Reporter-Curator: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.
There has been a causal link between alterations in cellular metabolism and the cancer phenotype. Reorganization of cellular metabolism, marked by a shift from oxidative phosphorylation to aerobic glycolysis for cellular energy requirements (Warburg effect), is considered a hallmark of the transformed cell. In addition, if tumors are to survive and grow, cancer cells need to adapt to environments high in metabolic stress and to avoid programmed cell death (apoptosis). Recently, a link between cancer growth and metabolism has been supported by the discovery that the LKB1/AMPK signaling pathway as a tumor suppressor axis.
LKB1/AMPK/mTOR Signaling Pathway
The Liver Kinase B1 (LKB1)/AMPK AMP-activated protein kinase/mammalian Target of Rapamycin Complex 1 (mTORC1) signaling pathway links cellular metabolism and energy status to pathways involved in cell growth, proliferation, adaption to energy stress, and autophagy. LKB1 is a master control for 14 other kinases including AMPK, a serine-threonine kinase which senses cellular AMP/ATP ratios. In response to cellular starvation, AMPK is allosterically activated by AMP, leading to activation of ATP-generating pathways like fatty acid oxidation and blocking anabolic pathways, like lipid and cholesterol synthesis (which consume ATP). In addition, AMPK regulates cell growth, proliferation, and autophagy by regulating the mTOR pathway. AMPK activates the tuberous sclerosis complex 1/2, which ultimately inhibits mTORC1 activity and inhibits protein translation. This mTOR activity is dis-regulated in many cancers.
LKB1/AMPK in Cancer
- Somatic mutations of the STK11 gene encoding LKB1 are detected in lung and cervical cancers
- Therefore LKB1 may be a strong tumor suppressor
- Pharmacologic activation of LKB1/AMPK with metformin can suppress cancer cell growth
In a recent Cell Metabolism paper, Brandon Faubert and colleagues describe how AMPK activity reduces aerobic glycolysis and tumor proliferation while loss of AMPK activity promotes tumor proliferation by shifting cells to aerobic glycolysis and increasing anabolic pathways in a HIF1-dependent manner.
The paper’s major findings were as follows:
- Loss of AMPKα1 cooperates with the Myc oncogene to accelerate lymphomagenesis
- AMPKα dysfunction enhances aerobic glycolysis (Warburg effect)
- Inhibiting HIF-1α reverses the metabolic effects of AMPKα loss
- HIF-1α mediates the growth advantage of tumors with reduced AMPK signaling
AMPK is a metabolic sensor that helps maintain cellular energy homeostasis. Despite evidence linking AMPK with tumor suppressor functions, the role of AMPK in tumorigenesis and tumor metabolism is unknown. Here we show that AMPK negatively regulates aerobic glycolysis (the Warburg effect) in cancer cells and suppresses tumor growth in vivo. Genetic ablation of the α1 catalytic subunit of AMPK accelerates Myc-induced lymphomagenesis. Inactivation of AMPKα in both transformed and nontransformed cells promotes a metabolic shift to aerobic glycolysis, increased allocation of glucose carbon into lipids, and biomass accumulation. These metabolic effects require normoxic stabilization of the hypoxia-inducible factor-1α (HIF-1α), as silencing HIF-1α reverses the shift to aerobic glycolysis and the biosynthetic and proliferative advantages conferred by reduced AMPKα signaling. Together our findings suggest that AMPK activity opposes tumor development and that its loss fosters tumor progression in part by regulating cellular metabolic pathways that support cell growth and proliferation.
Below is the graphical abstract of this paper.
(Photo credit reference(2; Faubert et. al) permission from Elsevier)
However, this regulation of tumor promotion by AMPK may be more complicated and dependent on the cellular environment.
Nissam Hay from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois, USA and his co-workers Sang-Min Jeon and Navdeep Chandel were investigating the mechanism through which LKB1/AMPK regulate the balance between cancer cell growth and apoptosis under energy stress. In their system, the loss of function of either of these proteins makes cells more sensitive to apoptosis in low glucose environments, and cells deficient in either AMPK or LKB1 were shown to be resistant to oncogenic transformation. Whereas previous studies showed (as above) AMPK opposes tumor proliferation in a HIF1-dependent manner, their results showed AMPK could promote tumor cell survival during periods of low glucose or altered redox status.
The researchers incubated LKB1-deficient cancer cells in the presence of either glucose or one of the non-metabolizable glucose analogues 2-deoxyglucose (2DG) and 5-thioglucose (5TG), and found that 2DG, but not 5TG, induced the activation of AMPK and protected the cells from apoptosis, even in cells that were deficient in LKB1.
The authors demonstrated that glucose deprivation depleted NADPH levels, increased H2O2 levels and increased cell death, and that this was accelerated in cells deficient in the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase. Anti-oxidants were also found to inhibit cell death in cells deficient in either AMPK or LKB1.
Knockdown or knockout of either LKB1 or AMPK in cancer cells significantly increased levels of H2O2 but not of peroxide (O2–) during glucose depletion. The glucose analogue 2DG was able to activate AMPK and maintain high levels of NADPH and low levels of H2O2 in these cells.
The nucleotide coenzyme NADPH is generated in the pentose phosphate pathway and mitochondrial metabolism, and consumed in H2O2 elimination and fatty acid synthesis. If glucose is limited mitochondrial metabolism becomes the major source of NADPH, supported by fatty acid oxidation. AMPK is known to be a regulator of fatty acid metabolism through inhibition of two acetyl-CoA carboxylases, ACC1 and ACC2.
Short interfering RNAs (siRNAs) to knock down levels of both ACC1 and ACC2 in A549 cancer cells and found that only ACC2 knockdown significantly increased peroxide accumulation and apoptosis, while over-expression of mutant ACC1 and ACC2 in LKB1-proficient cells increased H2O2 and apoptosis.
Therefore, it was concluded AMPK acts to promote early tumor growth and prevent apoptosis in conditions of energy stress through inhibiting acetyl-CoA carboxylase activity, thus maintaining NADPH levels and preventing the build-up of peroxide in glucose-deficient conditions.
This may appear to be conflicting with the previous report in this post however, it is possible that these reports reflect differences in the way cells respond to various cellular stresses, be it hypoxia, glucose deprivation, or changes in redox status. Therefore a complex situation may arise:
- AMPK promotes tumor progression under glucose starvation
- AMPK can oppose tumor proliferation under a normoxic, HIF1-dependent manner
- Could AMPK regulation be different in cancer stem cells vs. non-stem cell?
1. Green AS, Chapuis N, Lacombe C, Mayeux P, Bouscary D, Tamburini J: LKB1/AMPK/mTOR signaling pathway in hematological malignancies: from metabolism to cancer cell biology. Cell Cycle 2011, 10(13):2115-2120.
2. Faubert B, Boily G, Izreig S, Griss T, Samborska B, Dong Z, Dupuy F, Chambers C, Fuerth BJ, Viollet B et al: AMPK is a negative regulator of the Warburg effect and suppresses tumor growth in vivo. Cell metabolism 2013, 17(1):113-124.
3. Jeon SM, Chandel NS, Hay N: AMPK regulates NADPH homeostasis to promote tumour cell survival during energy stress. Nature 2012, 485(7400):661-665.
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