Archive for the ‘cancer metabolism’ Category

Tumor Ammonia Recycling: How Cancer Cells Use Glutamate Dehydrogenase to Recycle Tumor Microenvironment Waste Products for Biosynthesis

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

A feature of the tumorigenic process is the rewiring of the metabolic processes that provides a tumor cell the ability to grow and thrive in conditions of limiting nutrients as well as the ability to utilize waste products in salvage pathways for production of new biomass (amino acids, nucleic acids etc.) required for cellular growth and division 1-8.  A Science article from Spinelli et al. 9 (and corresponding Perspective article in the same issue by Dr. Chi V. Dang entitled Feeding Frenzy for Cancer Cells 10) describes the mechanism by which estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer cells convert glutamine to glutamate, release ammonia  into the tumor microenvironment, diffuses into tumor cells and eventually recycle this ammonia by reductive amination of a-ketoglutarate by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH) to produce glutamic acid and subsequent other amino acids needed for biomass production.   Ammonia can accumulate in the tumor microenvironment in poorly vascularized tumor. Thus ammonia becomes an important nitrogen source for tumor cells.

Mammalian cells have a variety of mechanisms to metabolize ammonia including

  • Glutamate synthetase (GS) in the liver can incorporate ammonia into glutamate to form glutamine
  • glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH) converts glutamate to a-ketoglutarate and ammonia under allosteric regulation (discussed in a post on this site by Dr. Larry H. Berstein; subsection Drugging Glutaminolysis)
  • the reverse reaction of GDH, which was found to occur in ER+ breast cancer cells, a reductive amination of a-ketoglutarate to glutamate11, is similar to the reductive carboxylation of a-ketoglutarate to citrate by isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) for fatty acid synthesis (IDH is overexpressed in many tumor types including cancer stem cells 12-15), and involved in immune response and has been developed as a therapeutic target for various cancers. IDH mutations were shown to possess the neomorphic activity to generate the oncometabolite, 2-hydroxyglutarate (2HG) 16-18. With a single codon substitution, the kinetic properties of the mutant IDH isozyme are significantly altered, resulting in an obligatory sequential ordered reaction in the reverse direction 19.


In the Science paper, Spinelli et al. report that ER+ breast cancer cells have the ability to utilize ammonia sources from their surroundings in order to produce amino acids and biomass as these ER+ breast cancer cells have elevated levels of GS and GDH with respect to other breast cancer histotypes.

GDH was elevated in ER+ luminal cancer cells and the quiescent epithelial cells in organoid culture

However proliferative cells were dependent on transaminases, which transfers nitrogen from glutamate to pyruvate or oxaloacetate to form a-ketoglutarate and alanine or aspartate. a-ketoglutarate is further metabolized in the citric acid cycle.














Figure 1.    Reductive amination and transamination reactions of glutamic acid.  Source

Spinelli et al. showed GDH is necessary for ammonia reductive incorporation into a-ketoglutarate and also required for ER+ breast cancer cell growth in immunocompromised mice.

In addition, as commented by Dr. Dang in his associated Perspectives article, (quotes indent)

The metabolic tumor microenvironment produced by resident cells, such as fibroblasts and macrophages, can create an immunosuppressive environment 20.  Hence, it will be of great interest to further understand whether products such as ammonia could affect tumor immunity or induce autophagy  (end quote indent)




Figure 2.  Tumor ammonia recycling.  Source:  From Chi V. Dang Feeding Frenzy for cancer cells.  Rights from RightsLink (

Metabolic recycling of ammonia via glutamate dehydrogenase supports breast cancer biomass

Jessica B. Spinelli1,2, Haejin Yoon1, Alison E. Ringel1, Sarah Jeanfavre2, Clary B. Clish2, Marcia C. Haigis1 *

1.      1Department of Cell Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. 2.      2Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA.

* *Corresponding author. Email:

Science  17 Nov 2017:Vol. 358, Issue 6365, pp. 941-946 DOI: 10.1126/science.aam9305


Ammonia is a ubiquitous by-product of cellular metabolism; however, the biological consequences of ammonia production are not fully understood, especially in cancer. We found that ammonia is not merely a toxic waste product but is recycled into central amino acid metabolism to maximize nitrogen utilization. In our experiments, human breast cancer cells primarily assimilated ammonia through reductive amination catalyzed by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH); secondary reactions enabled other amino acids, such as proline and aspartate, to directly acquire this nitrogen. Metabolic recycling of ammonia accelerated proliferation of breast cancer. In mice, ammonia accumulated in the tumor microenvironment and was used directly to generate amino acids through GDH activity. These data show that ammonia is not only a secreted waste product but also a fundamental nitrogen source that can support tumor biomass.




1          Strickaert, A. et al. Cancer heterogeneity is not compatible with one unique cancer cell metabolic map. Oncogene 36, 2637-2642, doi:10.1038/onc.2016.411 (2017).

2          Hui, S. et al. Glucose feeds the TCA cycle via circulating lactate. Nature 551, 115-118, doi:10.1038/nature24057 (2017).

3          Mashimo, T. et al. Acetate is a bioenergetic substrate for human glioblastoma and brain metastases. Cell 159, 1603-1614, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.11.025 (2014).

4          Sousa, C. M. et al. Erratum: Pancreatic stellate cells support tumour metabolism through autophagic alanine secretion. Nature 540, 150, doi:10.1038/nature19851 (2016).

5          Sousa, C. M. et al. Pancreatic stellate cells support tumour metabolism through autophagic alanine secretion. Nature 536, 479-483, doi:10.1038/nature19084 (2016).

6          Commisso, C. et al. Macropinocytosis of protein is an amino acid supply route in Ras-transformed cells. Nature 497, 633-637, doi:10.1038/nature12138 (2013).

7          Hanahan, D. & Weinberg, R. A. The hallmarks of cancer. Cell 100, 57-70 (2000).

8          Hanahan, D. & Weinberg, R. A. Hallmarks of cancer: the next generation. Cell 144, 646-674, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.02.013 (2011).

9          Spinelli, J. B. et al. Metabolic recycling of ammonia via glutamate dehydrogenase supports breast cancer biomass. Science 358, 941-946, doi:10.1126/science.aam9305 (2017).

10        Dang, C. V. Feeding frenzy for cancer cells. Science 358, 862-863, doi:10.1126/science.aaq1070 (2017).

11        Smith, T. J. & Stanley, C. A. Untangling the glutamate dehydrogenase allosteric nightmare. Trends in biochemical sciences 33, 557-564, doi:10.1016/j.tibs.2008.07.007 (2008).

12        Metallo, C. M. et al. Reductive glutamine metabolism by IDH1 mediates lipogenesis under hypoxia. Nature 481, 380-384, doi:10.1038/nature10602 (2011).

13        Garrett, M. et al. Metabolic characterization of isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) mutant and IDH wildtype gliomaspheres uncovers cell type-specific vulnerabilities. Cancer & metabolism 6, 4, doi:10.1186/s40170-018-0177-4 (2018).

14        Calvert, A. E. et al. Cancer-Associated IDH1 Promotes Growth and Resistance to Targeted Therapies in the Absence of Mutation. Cell reports 19, 1858-1873, doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2017.05.014 (2017).

15        Sciacovelli, M. & Frezza, C. Metabolic reprogramming and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition in cancer. The FEBS journal 284, 3132-3144, doi:10.1111/febs.14090 (2017).

16        Dang, L. et al. Cancer-associated IDH1 mutations produce 2-hydroxyglutarate. Nature 462, 739-744, doi:10.1038/nature08617 (2009).

17        Gross, S. et al. Cancer-associated metabolite 2-hydroxyglutarate accumulates in acute myelogenous leukemia with isocitrate dehydrogenase 1 and 2 mutations. The Journal of experimental medicine 207, 339-344, doi:10.1084/jem.20092506 (2010).

18        Ward, P. S. et al. The common feature of leukemia-associated IDH1 and IDH2 mutations is a neomorphic enzyme activity converting alpha-ketoglutarate to 2-hydroxyglutarate. Cancer cell 17, 225-234, doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2010.01.020 (2010).

19        Rendina, A. R. et al. Mutant IDH1 enhances the production of 2-hydroxyglutarate due to its kinetic mechanism. Biochemistry 52, 4563-4577, doi:10.1021/bi400514k (2013).

20        Zhang, X. et al. IDH mutant gliomas escape natural killer cell immune surveillance by downregulation of NKG2D ligand expression. Neuro-oncology 18, 1402-1412, doi:10.1093/neuonc/now061 (2016).


Other articles on this Open Access Journal on Cancer Metabolism Include:


Is the Warburg Effect the Cause or the Effect of Cancer: A 21st Century View?


Accumulation of 2-hydroxyglutarate is not a biomarker for malignant progression of IDH-mutated low grade gliomas



Protein-binding, Protein-Protein interactions & Therapeutic Implications [7.3]

Is the Warburg effect an effect of deregulated space occupancy of methylome?

Therapeutic Implications for Targeted Therapy from the Resurgence of Warburg ‘Hypothesis’

New Insights on the Warburg Effect [2.2]

The Inaugural Judith Ann Lippard Memorial Lecture in Cancer Research: PI 3 Kinase & Cancer Metabolism

Renal (Kidney) Cancer: Connections in Metabolism at Krebs cycle and Histone Modulation

Warburg Effect and Mitochondrial Regulation- 2.1.3

Refined Warburg Hypothesis -2.1.2



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Live 11:00 AM- 12:00 Mediterranean Diet and Lifestyle: A Symposium on Diet and Human Health : Opening Remarks October 19, 2018

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

11:00 Welcome



Prof. Antonio Giordano, MD, PhD.

Director and President of the Sbarro Health Research Organization, College of Science and Technology, Temple University

Welcome to this symposium on Italian lifestyle and health.  This is similar to a symposium we had organized in New York.  A year ago Bloomberg came out with a study on higher longevity of the italian population and this study was concluded that this increased longevity was due to the italian lifestyle and diet especially in the southern part of Italy, a region which is older than Rome (actually founded by Greeks and Estonians).  However this symposium will delve into the components of this healthy Italian lifestyle which contributes to this longevity effect.  Some of this work was done in collaboration with Temple University and sponsored by the Italian Consulate General in Philadelphia ( which sponsors programs in this area called Ciao Philadelphia).

Greetings: Fucsia Nissoli Fitzgerald, Deputy elected in the Foreign Circumscription – North and Central America Division

Speaking for the Consulate General is Francesca  Cardurani-Meloni.   I would like to talk briefly about the Italian cuisine and its evolution, from the influence of the North and South Italy, economic factors, and influence by other cultures.  Italian cooking is about simplicity, cooking with what is in season and freshest.  The meal is not about the food but about comfort around the table, and comparible to a cullinary heaven, about sharing with family and friends, and bringing the freshest ingredients to the table.

Consul General, Honorable Pier Attinio Forlano, General Consul of Italy in Philadelphia


11:30 The Impact of Environment and Life Style in Human Disease

Prof. Antonio Giordano MD, PhD.




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Energy dysfunction detected in skin cells a possible additional explanation of the Alzheimer’s disease’s hallmark Dementia

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

A team at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital tested the cells of late-onset Alzheimer’s patients and found malfunctions in their energy production, including problems with the health of their mitochondria, the cellular power plants that provide most of their energy.

The brain, because it is the body’s most energy-hungry organ, demanding as much as 20 times the energy of other tissues. Such a malfunction, he said, could damage or kill nerve cells and help explain the cognitive decline associated with the disease.

McLean researchers detect dysfunction in cells’ energy production in late-onset patients

“Although people hope with a lot of these conditions we study — normal or abnormal — that there are going to be simple answers … it’s never simple, it’s always all kinds of factors interacting to determine whether you get lucky or not, whether you get sick or not,” Cohen said.

The next step, Cohen said, will be to do a similar study on the neurons and other brain cells of Alzheimer’s patients, to see whether the energy dysfunction detected in skin cells is replicated there. Even if medical understanding of the disease remains imperfect, Cohen said the ultimate hope is to find an intervention that interrupts Alzheimer’s most devastating effects.

“You don’t have to fix everything to keep somebody from getting sick,” Cohen said. “The reason somebody gets sick is you’re unlucky five different ways and it all combines to tip you over the edge. Maybe you only need to fix one of them and you don’t tip over the edge anymore.”


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Knowing the genetic vulnerability of bladder cancer for therapeutic intervention

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


A mutated gene called RAS gives rise to a signalling protein Ral which is involved in tumour growth in the bladder. Many researchers tried and failed to target and stop this wayward gene. Signalling proteins such as Ral usually shift between active and inactive states.


So, researchers next tried to stop Ral to get into active state. In inacvtive state Ral exposes a pocket which gets closed when active. After five years, the researchers found a small molecule dubbed BQU57 that can wedge itself into the pocket to prevent Ral from closing and becoming active. Now, BQU57 has been licensed for further development.


Researchers have a growing genetic data on bladder cancer, some of which threaten to overturn the supposed causes of bladder cancer. Genetics has also allowed bladder cancer to be reclassified from two categories into five distinct subtypes, each with different characteristics and weak spots. All these advances bode well for drug development and for improved diagnosis and prognosis.


Among the groups studying the genetics of bladder cancer are two large international teams: Uromol (named for urology and molecular biology), which is based at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, and The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), based at institutions in Texas and Boston. Each team tackled a different type of cancer, based on the traditional classification of whether or not a tumour has grown into the muscle wall of the bladder. Uromol worked on the more common, earlier form, non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer, whereas TCGA is looking at muscle-invasive bladder cancer, which has a lower survival rate.


The Uromol team sought to identify people whose non-invasive tumours might return after treatment, becoming invasive or even metastatic. Bladder cancer has a high risk of recurrence, so people whose non-invasive cancer has been treated need to be monitored for many years, undergoing cystoscopy every few months. They looked for predictive genetic footprints in the transcriptome of the cancer, which contains all of a cell’s RNA and can tell researchers which genes are turned on or off.


They found three subgroups with distinct basal and luminal features, as proposed by other groups, each with different clinical outcomes in early-stage bladder cancer. These features sort bladder cancer into genetic categories that can help predict whether the cancer will return. The researchers also identified mutations that are linked to tumour progression. Mutations in the so-called APOBEC genes, which code for enzymes that modify RNA or DNA molecules. This effect could lead to cancer and cause it to be aggressive.


The second major research group, TCGA, led by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, that involves thousands of researchers across USA. The project has already mapped genomic changes in 33 cancer types, including breast, skin and lung cancers. The TCGA researchers, who study muscle-invasive bladder cancer, have looked at tumours that were already identified as fast-growing and invasive.


The work by Uromol, TCGA and other labs has provided a clearer view of the genetic landscape of early- and late-stage bladder cancer. There are five subtypes for the muscle-invasive form: luminal, luminal–papillary, luminal–infiltrated, basal–squamous, and neuronal, each of which is genetically distinct and might require different therapeutic approaches.


Bladder cancer has the third-highest mutation rate of any cancer, behind only lung cancer and melanoma. The TCGA team has confirmed Uromol research showing that most bladder-cancer mutations occur in the APOBEC genes. It is not yet clear why APOBEC mutations are so common in bladder cancer, but studies of the mutations have yielded one startling implication. The APOBEC enzyme causes mutations early during the development of bladder cancer, and independent of cigarette smoke or other known exposures.


The TCGA researchers found a subset of bladder-cancer patients, those with the greatest number of APOBEC mutations, had an extremely high five-year survival rate of about 75%. Other patients with fewer APOBEC mutations fared less well which is pretty surprising.


This detailed knowledge of bladder-cancer genetics may help to pinpoint the specific vulnerabilities of cancer cells in different people. Over the past decade, Broad Institute researchers have identified more than 760 genes that cancer needs to grow and survive. Their genetic map might take another ten years to finish, but it will list every genetic vulnerability that can be exploited. The goal of cancer precision medicine is to take the patient’s tumour and decode the genetics, so the clinician can make a decision based on that information.




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Agios Pharmaceuticals target the metabolism of cancer cells for making drugs that essentially try to repair cancer cells

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

A small biotech behind a groundbreaking approach to tackling cancer just got its first drug approved


Cancer Metabolism

Metabolic Immuno-Oncology



The VOICE of Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

Cancer cells didn’t need as much oxygen to metabolize sugar as normal cells. 

Not correct. Cancer cells metabolize glucose by aerobic glycolysis (4 ATP) with an impaired mitochondrial oxygen utilization (36 ATP). 

There is a reverse Warburg effect in which the underlying stromal cell carries out crosstalk with the epithelial cell. 

There is also a 3rd dimension. Cells undergo a series of adaptive changes tied to proteostasis. This involves the sulfur amino acid cysteine and disulfide bonds, which is involved with protein oligomerization in the ER, and also signaling in the mitochondria with mDNA and the nucleus. 

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