Archive for the ‘Lipids’ Category

 Cholesterol Lowering Novel PCSK9 drugs: Praluent [Sanofi and Regeneron] vs Repatha [Amgen] – which drug cuts CV risks enough to make it cost-effective?

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


Did Amgen’s Repatha cut CV risks enough to make it cost-effective? Analysts say no

Sanofi, Regeneron’s Praluent pulls off PCSK9 coup with 29% cut to death risks in most vulnerable patients
SEE our curations on PCSK9 drugs:

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ODYSSEY Outcomes trial evaluating the effects of a PCSK9 inhibitor, alirocumab, on major cardiovascular events in patients with an acute coronary syndrome to be presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting on March 10.

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


For PCSK9 inhibitors, the effect on major adverse cardiovascular events has always fallen short of expectations based on cholesterol lowering.

But cardiovascular risk reduction is complicated. There is more to the puzzle than cholesterol. Some drugs lower both cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular events, but some people think that the two effects are actually not that closely related.

Milton Packer MD

In a previous trial (FOURIER), another PCSK9 inhibitor had only a modest benefit on its primary endpoint, and it did not reduce cardiovascular death, although the magnitude of cholesterol lowering was striking.

In another trial (SPIRE), a third PCSK9 inhibitor, the clinical trial was terminated prematurely by Pfizer because of reduction of the effect of the drug (a humanized but not fully humanized antibody) due to development of neutralizing antibodies in some of the patients. Actually, in patients treated for more than a year who did not develop neutralizing antibodies, a beneficial effect was seen.

The ODYSSEY Outcomes trial is evaluating the effects of a PCSK9 inhibitor,alirocumab, on major cardiovascular events in patients with an acute coronary syndrome within the prior year. The drug lowers serum cholesterol dramatically, and some are hopeful that that effect will translate into an important reduction in the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events. If you believe that cholesterol reduction inevitably leads to the prevention of cardiovascular death, myocardial infarction and stroke, then you would have high expectations for the ODYSSEY trial.

ODYSSEY. The trial uses a somewhat more aggressive treatment strategy and has a longer follow-up period than its predecessors. So maybe the benefit will be large. Maybe the drug will even reduce cardiovascular death or all-cause mortality.

In order to enrich the population for cardiovascular events, the trial enrolled patients with an acute coronary syndrome within the prior year. These patients are at high risk of having a recurrence. The problem is that risk is not necessarily related to changes in cholesterol, especially the events occurring early in the trial. And in this type of trial, the analysis tends to give extra weight to early events.

Trials like ODYSSEY are often designed to stop early if the results are unbelievably impressive. The ODYSSEY trial wasn’t stopped early.

the patients entering the ODYSSEY trial are starting out with a serum LDL <100 mg/dL or even <90 mg/dL. Is cholesterol really playing an important role at that level, especially when compared with noncholesterol factors?


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LIVE 9/21 8AM to 2:40PM Targeting Cardio-Metabolic Diseases: A focus on Liver Fibrosis and NASH Targets at CHI’s 14th Discovery On Target, 9/19 – 9/22/2016, Westin Boston Waterfront, Boston




Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH)


Leaders in Pharmaceutical Business Intelligence (LPBI) Group is a

Media Partner of CHI for CHI’s 14th Annual Discovery on Target taking place September 19 – 22, 2016 in Boston.

In Attendance, streaming LIVE using Social Media

Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



Wednesday, September 21

7:30 am Registration Open and Morning Coffee

8:00 Chairperson’s Opening Remarks

Rebecca Taub, M.D., Ph.D., CEO, Madrigal Pharmaceuticals

  • Epidemic of NASH,
  • approaches to treating NASH – Fibrosis
  • NASH is a metabolic Disease of the Liver
  • Treating the HCV will treat the Fibrosis

8:10 FEATURED PRESENTATION: The Epidemic of Fatty Liver Disease: Silent, Serious and Still Growing?

Lee Kaplan, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Obesity, Metabolism and Nutrition Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

  • Silent, Serious and Growing
  • Obesity the Disease = BMI>30: Medical Complicastions for BMI >%) – On ANti-Obisity and Bariatric SUrgery, Type 2 Diabetis .. NAFLD .. NASH .. Cirrhosis .. HCC
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  1. Medical Complications of Obisity =197 :
  2. NAFLD – Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease >>> Liver transplantation replacing HCV
  3. Associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes
  4. NAFLD is UP 90% wiht Severe Obesity
  5. Viral hepatitis and Hemochromatosis
  6. NAFLD: Steatosis, Inflamamtion, Hepatocellular Necrosis, Fibrosis, Cirrhosis
  7. NASH: insulin resistence .. metabolic syndrom .. interaction
  8. Alternative Model: Metabolis Syndrom.. Steatosis .. NASH … FIbrosis
  9. Genetics of Liver DIsease
  10. PNPLA3 Associated with NAFLD – Not Weight Gain
  11. Other genes: A Partial List:
  12. Diagnosis of NASH: Liver biopsy macrovescicular fatty change: InflammationMollery bodies
  13. 75% Patients with Cirrhousis have obisity
  14. Alcoholoc hepatisis >> Progression to Cirrhousis
  15. Macrovesicular Steatosis
  16. NASH – inflammation
  17. Sinusoidal Pericellular Fibrosis –
  18. LAB Features of NAFLD
  • Transaminase elevation
  • Akaline phosphate
  1. Biomarkers – NASH – associated cirrhousis with lower rate 30% of elevation
  2. Fibrosure
  • Clinical Features of NASH: none presentation, Bright, Echo Fibroscan FibroscanScreen for HCC, Varices if Gray zone: Biopsy
  • Treatment of NASH
  • Treat liver disease: Treat steatosis then Inflamamtion and fibrosis
  1. NAFLD Treatment Strategy: Stepwise Approach
  • Treat the steatosis Piodlitazone
  • PPARalpha, delta,
  • Treat Inflammation: ANtioxidant
  • CCR2/CCR% inhibitors
  • Metabolic SUrgery
  • Weigh-independent for bariatric
  • Bariatic: improvrment of steatosis,effect on inflammationless clear
  • dramatic on weigh loss
  • NO clear is surgery improved cirhousis
  • If NASH developed >>>> progression s the rule
  • No great treatment of NASH

Medication-assciated NASH: Glucocorti


8:40 Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis and Cardiovascular Disease: Modulation by Novel PPAR Agonists

Bart Staels, Ph.D., Professor, INSERM, University of Lille, Pasteur Institute

Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs) are ligand-activated nuclear receptors which regulate lipid and glucose metabolism as well as inflammation. In this presentation, we will review recent findings on the pathophysiological role of PPARs in the different stages of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), from steatosis development to steatohepatitis and fibrosis, as well as the preclinical and clinical evidences for potential therapeutical use of PPAR agonists in the treatment of NAFLD. PPARs play a role in modulating hepatic triglyceride accumulation, a hallmark of the development of NAFLD. Moreover, PPARs may also influence the evolution of reversible steatosis towards irreversible, more advanced lesions. Large controlled trials of long duration to assess the long-term clinical benefits of PPAR agonists in humans are ongoing.

Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatisis and CVD – Meta inflammatory disease

  • NAFL — abnormal Lipid accumulation
  • NASH >> Balooning, FIbrosis inflamation
  • Resolution of NASH is associated with reduction of Fibrosis (Golden – 505 trial)

CVD is linked to NAFLD: Lipids elevated and therosclerosis

  • TG – elevated, APO B elevated, VLDL – elevated HDL decrease
  • PPAR Alpha
  • Gamma
  • PPAR Beta/Delta agonist: GENFIT – Elafibranor

Trans-activation: Lipid and Glucose homeostasis: Trans-repression – anti-inflammatory properties

  • Hapatic mitochondrial activity deseases upon progression from NAFL to NASH: Obese NAFL and NASH
  1. Upregulated hepatic respiratory in obese humans with or without NAFL
  2. Impaired
  3. Hepatic PPARalpha Expression Decreases upon Progression of Nash and Fibrosis
  4. hepatic PPARalpha expression – target genes increase in patients with improved NASH histology after 1 year
  5. Metabolic Regualtion by thehepatic JNK Signaling Pathway
  6. Target gene transcription – miR-21 expression increases in human
  7. PPAR Delta: Elafibbranor: – effect on plasma lipids: A Dual PPAR alpha/Delts (GFT505): 80mg vs placebo and 120mg vs placebo, improves plasma apolipolipids and glucose HbA1C – insulin sensitivity
  8. efficacy in NASH acting on: Steatosis, fibrosis and cirrhosis
  9. inflammatory markers: RESOLVE-IT Phase 3 Study Desing: NASH ressolution without adverse on FIbrosis and Cirrhosis

GOLDEN505 Trial: Improves plasma lipid levels: Triglycerides

Inclusion Criteria:


Improve atherogenic dyslipidemia

  • APOC3 – associated with CVD

9:10 PANEL DISCUSSION: Liver Fibrosis and NASH Targets

Moderator: H. James Harwood, Ph.D., Delphi BioMedical Consultants, LLC


Lee Kaplan, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Obesity, Metabolism and Nutrition Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Bart Staels, Ph.D., Professor, INSERM, University of Lille, Pasteur Institute

Rebecca Taub, M.D., Ph.D., CEO, Madrigal Pharmaceuticals

Weilin Xie, Ph.D., Senior Principal Scientist, Biotherapeutics, Celgene Corp.

  • FDA’s view on surrogate endpoints
  • Biomarkers of NASH
  • Regulatory challenges
  1. Liver biopsy: gold standard, invasive direct measure of endpoints pros/cons
  2. non-invasive functional tests – plasma bioamrkers
  3. non-invasisve liver imaging techniques: MRI to assess hepatic fat content MRE to assess hepatic fibrosis, Fibroscan,
  4. Endpoints acceptable by FDA: Current vs Future
  • Pre clinical Translational animal models

Discussion by Panel members

Progression from NAFLD to NASH: Oxidative stress and toxic lipids

NASH and Steatosis are different populations

Alcoholoc Steatosis vs Non-Alcoholic Steatosis

  • Obesity cause of Fatty liver
  • NASH in Diabetes
  • NASH progresses
  • Steatosis is associated with NASH
  • Different types of NASH: HTN, Dislipedemia,
  • GENETICS underlining factors, more genes are discovered
  • Limitations of Animal Studies for inference on Humans – careful in over generalizing results
  • Metabolic SYndrom -not all progresses to NASH
  • Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) depend on Steatosis


9:40 Coffee Break in the Exhibit Hall with Poster Viewing

10:25 Targeting Fibroblast Activation Protein (FAP) and FGF21 to Treat Fatty Liver Disease

Diana Ronai Dunshee, Ph.D., Department of Molecular Biology, Senior Scientific Researcher, Genentech, Inc.

FGF21 is a hormone with anti-obesity and hepatoprotective properties. However, the beneficial effects of FGF21 are limited by a relatively short half-life in circulation. We discovered that fibroblast activation protein (FAP), an endopeptidase overexpressed in liver with cirrhosis, cleaves and inactivates FGF21. Pharmacological inhibition of FAP increases endogenous levels of active FGF21, thus making FAP a promising target for the treatment of non-alcoholic-steatohepatitis (NASH).

  • Medical complications of obisity: NASH and DM-2
  • energy consumption
  • white adipose tissue – energy storage
  • brown adipose tissue matochondia’s energy
  • FGF21 – Human activation of protein cleavage: A Homone beneficial on metabolic health circulation, weigh loss
  • it suppreses hepatic Steatohepatitis
  • One singleinjection in mice — leads to energy expenditure induced weigh loss and metabolic improvement in Obese Humans
  • Negative FGF21 is Rapidly Eliminated from the body – renal degradation and Inactivation of FGF21 Endopeptidase Cleavage Site – Fibroblast Activation Protein Matched FAP Endopeptidease Specificity
  • Closest relative of DPP4 upregulted during tissue injury in NASH
  • FAP is SUfficient to Cleave FGF21
  • Recombinant FGF21 with Recombinant FAP in Serum or Plasma
  • FAP Protease – Serum Immunodepleted Ablates FGF21 Cleavage Activity: Peptide IgG vs anti-FAP
  • FAP Cleavage Inactivates Human FGF21 dependent on KLB-FGFR1c placed on the site
  • hFGF21 in Not Cleaved in FAP KO Mice
  • Fc-hFGF21 is more stable in FAP KO mice
  • FAR cleaves Endogenously Produced FGF21 In Vivo in monkeys and in dogs
  • The FAP Cleavage Consensus GLY-Pro is COnserved in most mammalian FGF21
  • FAP Does not Cleave the C-Terminal Residues of Mouse FGF21
  • Human: FAP, DPPIV
  • Mouse: FAP, DPP4
  • FAP INhibition
  • FAP is Overexpressed in Liver with Steatohepatitis: Early NASH vs Late NASH
  • Proposal: FAP Inhibition for FGF21 Stabilization in NASH
  1. Fatty hepatocytes – e.g. NASH
  2. Activated stellate cells, e.g. NASH


10:55 Thyroid Hormone Receptor Beta (THR-ß) Agonist for NASH: Correcting a Primary Deficiency in NASH Livers

Rebecca Taub, M.D., Ph.D., CEO, Madrigal Pharmaceuticals

NASH patients typically have metabolic syndrome including diabetes, dyslipidemia, obesity, and primarily die of cardiovascular disease. Hypothyroidism at the level of the thyroid gland and liver-specific hypothyroidism are common in NASH. Based on clinical and preclinical data, Thyroid receptor beta agonists decrease insulin resistance, reduce LDL-C, triglycerides fatty liver, inflammation and fibrosis in NASH. The target will also provide CV benefit to patients with NASH. MGL-3196 is a highly THR-ß selective liver-directed once daily oral medication that has shown excellent safety and lipid-lowering efficacy in humans; unlike prior thyroid receptor agonist(s), no cartilage findings in chronic toxicology or ALT increases in human studies. MGL-3196 is being advanced in Phase II studies in patients with genetic dyslipidemia or NASH.

Madrigal Portfolio of drugs:

  • MGL-3196: First-in-Class THR-Beta Agonist – discovered first at ROCHE – THR-beta selective targeted to the Liver – regulated by THR-Alpha  – in Phase II – no side effects on bone
  • Large & underserved Markets in NASH
  • Phase 2 HeFH Patients
  1. Hypothyroidism common in NASH patients
  2. Liver-specific Hypothyroidism present in human NASH degradation of thyroid hormone increases deiodised 9DIO) 3 produced by Stelllate cells in NASH liver
  3. Treating NASHrather than fibrosis is key in addressing the disease – approvable endpoint
  4. THR – Thyroid hormone reduces Cholesterol
  5. Thyroid hormone T3 thyroxine – treatment amy cause osteoporosis
  6. MGL 0 3196: Liver size, Live Triglycerides, Improve Insulin tolerance, decrease ALT
  7. Reduction of key NASH, Fibrosis Pathway Genes at Human Comparable Drug levels
  8. THR-beta: Decreased Liver Fibrosis, Apoptosis in mice:


  • Single ascending dose study
  • Multiple – ascending studies: LDL and TG decrease
  • decrease Non-HDL CHolesterol
  • Decrease Apolipoprotein B
  • Pleiotropic Pioglitazone Effect in NASH at 6 month treatment and biopsy of liver – dramatic effect in NASH – ten years ago study
  • PPAR gamma agonist – NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECTS: weight gain, CHF, Bone osteoporosis
  • Anti-inflammatory: well tolerated

No Single NASH Therapeutics – Conbination agents

MGL – 3196 Phase 2 – Study: Proposed Phase 2 Proof of COncepts NASH Protocol

  • Unmet needs in FH, a severeGenetic Dyslipedemia
  • Weight loss in 6 weeksreduction in cholesterol and TG
  • Likelihood of Success
  • second study after 9 months
  • is different on NASH Patients in 12 weeks using MRI on Liver
  • prevalence
  • HeFH, PCSK9 inhibitors plus standard care
  • Unique and Complementary Lipid Lowering Profile
  1. Lowers Lp(a) and severely atherogenic practice
  2. Proposed Phase 2 HeFH Patients


11:25 Enjoy Lunch on Your Own


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Insight into Blood Brain Barrier

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator




Gateway to The Brain

This image shows the structural model of critical transporter, Mfsd2a. Source: Duke-NUS Medical School
This image shows the structural model of critical transporter, Mfsd2a. Source: Duke-NUS Medical School.

Scientists from Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) have derived a structural model of a transporter at the blood-brain barrier called Mfsd2a. This is the first molecular model of this critical transporter, and could prove important for the development of therapeutic agents that need to be delivered to the brain — across the blood-brain barrier. In future, this could help treat neurological disorders such as glioblastoma.

Currently, there are limitations to drug delivery to the brain as it is tightly protected by the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a protective barrier that separates the circulating blood from the central nervous system which can prevent the entry of certain toxins and drugs to the brain. This restricts the treatment of many brain diseases. However, as a transporter at the blood-brain barrier, Mfsd2a is a potential conduit for drug delivery directly to the brain, thus bypassing the barrier.

In this study, recently published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, first author Duke-NUS MD/PhD student Debra Quek and senior author Professor David Silver used molecular modeling and biochemical analyses of altered Mfsd2a transporters to derive a structural model of human Mfsd2a. Importantly, the work identifies new binding features of the transporter, providing insight into the transport mechanism of Mfsd2a.

“Our study provides the first glimpse into what Mfsd2a looks like and how it might transport essential lipids across the blood-brain barrier,” said Ms Quek. “It also facilitates a structure-guided search and design of scaffolds for drug delivery to the brain via Mfsd2a, or of drugs that can be directly transported by Mfsd2a.”

Currently this information is being used by Duke-NUS researchers to design novel therapeutic agents for direct drug delivery across the blood brain barrier for the treatment of neurological diseases. This initiative by the Centre for Technology and Development (CTeD) at Duke-NUS, is one of many collaborative research efforts aimed at translating Duke-NUS’ research findings into tangible commercial and therapeutic applications for patients.

Ms Quek plans to further validate her findings by purifying the Mfsd2a protein in order to further dissect how it functions as a transporter.


J Biol Chem. 2016 Mar 4. pii: jbc.M116.721035. [Epub ahead of print]
Structural insights into the transport mechanism of the human sodium-dependent lysophosphatidylcholine transporter Mfsd2a.

Major Facilitator Superfamily Domain containing 2A (Mfsd2a) was recently characterized as a sodium-dependent lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC) transporter expressed at the blood-brain barrier endothelium. It is the primary route for importation of docosohexaenoic acid and other long-chain fatty acids into foetal and adult brain, and is essential for mouse and human brain growth and function. Remarkably, Mfsd2a is the first identified MFS family member that uniquely transports lipids, implying that Mfsd2a harbours unique structural features and transport mechanism. Here, we present three 3D structural models of human Mfsd2a derived by homology modelling using MelB- and LacY-based crystal structures, and refined by biochemical analysis. All models revealed 12 transmembrane helices and connecting loops, and represented the partially outward-open, outward-partially occluded, and inward-open states of the transport cycle. In addition to a conserved sodium-binding site, three unique structural features were identified: A phosphate headgroup binding site, a hydrophobic cleft to accommodate a hydrophobic hydrocarbon tail, and three sets of ionic locks that stabilize the outward-open conformation. Ligand docking studies and biochemical assays identified Lys436 as a key residue for transport. It is seen forming a salt bridge with the negative charge on the phosphate headgroup. Importantly, Mfsd2a transported structurally related acylcarnitines but not a lysolipid without a negative charge, demonstrating the necessity of a negative charged headgroup interaction with Lys436 for transport. These findings support a novel transport mechanism by which LPCs are flipped within the transporter cavity by pivoting about Lys436 leading to net transport from the outer to the inner leaflet of the plasma membrane.


Brain and eye contain membrane phospholipids that are enriched in the omega-3 fatty acid docosohexaenoic acid (DHA). It is widely accepted that DHA is important for brain and eye function and brain development (1,2), although mechanisms for DHA function in these tissues are not well defined.   The mechanism by which DHA and other conditionally essential and essential fatty acids cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) has been a long-standing mystery. Recently, we identified Major Facilitator Superfamily Domain containing 2a (Mfsd2a, aka NLS1) as the primary transporter by which the brain obtains DHA. Importantly, Mfsd2a does not transport unesterified DHA, but transports DHA in the chemical form of lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC) that are synthesized by the liver and circulate largely on albumin (3). This is consistent with biochemical evidence that the brain does not transport unesterified fatty acids (4) and that LPC is the preferred carrier of DHA to the brain (5,6).   Mfsd2a is a sodium-dependent transporter that is part of the Major Facilitator Superfamily (MFS) of proteins. Members of this family with elucidated structures have 12 transmembrane domains composed of two evolutionarily duplicated 6 transmembrane units (7). Transporting an LPC is a unique feature of Mfsd2a, since most members of this family transport water-soluble and minimally polar substrates such as sugars (GLUT, MelB, LacY), and amino acids (TAT1). Mfsd2a transport is not limited to LPCs containing DHA, as it can transport LPCs containing a variety of fatty acyl chains, with higher specificity for LPCs with unsaturated fatty acyl chains with a minimum chain length of 14 carbons (6,8). Crystal structures have been solved for more than a dozen members of the MFS family, with more than 19 structures, including that of Melibiose permease (MelB) of S. typhimurium (9), Lactose permease (LacY) of Escherichia coli (10), glycerol-3-phosphate transporter of E. coli (11) and the mammalian glucose transporters 1, 3, and 5 (GLUT1, GLUT3, GLUT5) (12-14). A common transport mechanism has emerged from both biochemical and structural analyses of MFSs, in which they transport via a rocker-switch, alternating access mechanism (7,15). In the rocker-switch model, rigid-body relative motion of the N- and C-termini domains renders the substrate-binding site alternatively accessible from either side of the membrane.

Mfsd2a is highly expressed at the bloodbrain barrier in both mouse and human (6,16). Mfsd2a deficient mice (KO) have significantly reduced brain DHA as a result of a 90% reduction in brain uptake of LPC containing DHA as well as other LPCs. The most prominent phenotype of Mfsd2a KO mice is microcephaly, and KO mice additionally exhibit motor dysfunction, and behavioral disorders including anxiety and memory and learning deficits (6). In line with the mouse KO phenotypes, human patients with partially or completely inactivating mutations in Mfsd2a presented with severe microcephaly, intellectual disability, and motor dysfunction (8,16). Plasma LPCs are significantly elevated in both KO mice and human patients with Mfsd2a mutations, consistent with reduced uptake at the blood-brain barrier. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that LPCs are essential for normal brain development and function in mouse and humans.

The fact that Mfsd2a transports a lysolipid, a non-canonical substrate for an MFS protein, might indicate unique structure features and a novel transport mechanism. However, no structural information or mechanism of transport of Mfsd2a is known. Human Mfsd2a is composed of 530 amino acids, with two glycosylation sites at Asn217 and Asn227. Mfsd2a is evolutionarily conserved from teleost fish to humans. Although not a functional ortholog of bacterial MFS transporters, Mfsd2a shares 25% and 26% amino acid sequence identity with S. typhimurium MelB (9,17), and LacY from E. coli (10), respectively. Given the high conservation of the MFS fold, the use of homology modeling to gain insight into the structure of S. typhimurium MelB, for example, has proven to be highly accurate and largely consistent with subsequent X-ray crystal data (9,18). Here, we take advantage of two recently derived high resolution X-ray crystal structures of S. typhimurium MelB (9), and a high resolution X-ray crystal structure of LacY (10) to generate three predictive structural models of human Mfsd2a. These models reveal three unique regions critical for function – an LPC headgroup binding site, a hydrophobic cleft occupied by the LPC fatty acyl tail, and three sets of ionic locks. These structural features indicate a novel mechanism of transport for LPCs.

Mfsd2a is a sodium-dependent lysophosphatidylcholine transporter essential for human brain growth and function (40). Mfsd2a is the only known MFS member or secondary transporter that transports a lipid. In line with its unique function, the current study has identified three unique structural features based on a combination of homology structural modeling and biochemical analysis – (1) a unique headgroup binding site and (2) a hydrophobic cleft for acyl chain binding, and (4) 3 sets of ionic locks that stabilize the outward open conformation. Drawing together these findings with studies of the mechanism of transport of other MFS family members, we propose the following alternatingaccess mechanism for LPC transport (Fig. 6). In the first steps, LPC inserts itself into the outer leaflet of the membrane and diffuses laterally into the transporter’s hydrophobic cleft. As Mfsd2a undergoes conformational changes from the outward open to the inward open conformation, the zwitterionic headgroup is inverted from the outer membrane leaflet to the inner membrane leaflet along a translocation pathway within the transporter, interacting with specific polar and charged residues lining the path. Since LPCs are hydrophobic phospholipids, it is unlikely that they will partition out of the transporter into the aqueous environment of the cytoplasm. We propose that the “flipped” LPC exits the transporter laterally into the membrane environment of the inner leaflet. This model of LPC flipping requires further biochemical proof. Of particular interest is the visualization of the interaction of the negatively charged phosphate headgroup of LPC with Lys436 that is maintained in both outward and inward open conformations. The sidechain of Lys436 is seen to be pointing in the upward direction in the outward open conformation, but pointing downward into the translocation cleft in the inward open conformation. These findings suggest that the Lys436 acts as a tether to push or pivot the headgroup down into the translocation cavity while the N- and C-termini of Mfsd2a rock and switch from outward to inward open.

Interestingly, Lys436 is orthologous to the residue Lys377 in the melibiose transporter of S. typhimurium. Based on the S. typhimurium MelB crystal structure, Lys377 has been predicted to be involved in binding melibiose, and in forming a hydrogen bond with Tyr120, likely separating the sodium binding site from the central hydrophilic cavity (9). In a recent molecular dynamic simulation of E. coli MelB, Lys377 was noted to interact differently with residues involved in the sodium binding site (Asp55, Asp59, and Asp124) in the presence or absence of a sodium ion, and thought to be critical for the spatial organization of the sodium binding site (41). Similarly, in our refined models of Mfsd2a, Lys436 is localized in close proximity to the sodium-binding site residue, Asp93, and the central translocation pathway where it has been identified by docking studies to interact with the charged headgroup of LPC. We hypothesize that Lys436 may shuttle between the two binding sites, communicating and coordinating the occupancy status of the two sites. Interestingly, there is a distinct mobility shift in Mfsd2a bands on SDS-PAGE between wild-type Mfsd2a and the L-3 mutant (R498E, R499E, R500E, K503E, K504E) (Fig. 5I) that is not seen when each of the residues are mutated individually (Fig. S1). These findings are consistent with a conformational change in the L-3 mutant. Given that the L-3 ionic lock is visualized in the outward partially occluded model, we hypothesize that the loss of the L-3 ionic lock results in Mfsd2a being trapped in an energetically more favorable inward open conformation, resulting in the loss of transport function (Fig. 5H).

Patients with the partially inactivating mutation p.(S399L) exhibited significant increases specifically in plasma LPCs having monounsaturated (18:1 – 92%, p=0.004) and polyunsaturated LPCs (18:2, 20:4, 20:3 – 254%, p=0.002; 117%, p=0.007, and 238%, p=0.002), but not in the most abundant LPCs – saturated LPCs (C16:0, C18:0) (8). This is consistent with a greater specificity of Mfsd2a for LPCs with unsaturated fatty acyl chains (6)…A possible explanation for this acyl chain specificity is related to the mobility of the acyl tail in the membrane. It is known that phospholipids with unsaturated fatty acyl chains disrupt the packing of the bilayer, resulting in greater lateral membrane fluidity (42). Therefore, one possible mechanism for LPC specificity is that LPCs with unsaturated fatty acyl chains have greater lateral mobility in the membrane, increasing the Ka for interacting with the transport cleft of Mfsd2a.

Another important structural feature of the physiological ligand, LPC, is a minimum acyl chain length of 14 carbons is required for transport by Mfsd2a. A possible explanation for this requirement is that the hydrocarbon chain must extend beyond the cleft, protruding into the hydrophobic milieu of the phospholipid bilayer core. This interaction of the fatty acyl tail with the acyl chains of the membrane bilayer may provide a hydrophobic force strong enough to pull the molecule through and out of the transporter as the LPC headgroup partitions into the inner leaflet of the membrane. A similar scenario is seen in the Sec translocon where a hydrophobic transmembrane domain of a protein partitions laterally from the Sec61p complex channel into the lipid bilayer (43,44). This proposal that the omega carbon of the fatty acyl chain sticks out of the Mfsd2a pocket is consistent with the observation that Mfsd2a can transport nitrobenzoxadiazole (NBD) or Topfluor when these moieties are attached to the omega carbon of the LPC fatty acyl tail [1].

Other known transmembrane phospholipid transporters include flippases, floppases, and scramblases. Flippases and floppases utilize ATP to drive the uphill transport of aminophospholipids from the outer to the inner leaflet, and specific substrates from the inner to the outer leaflet, respectively (45-47). Scramblases are less well understood, facilitating transport of substrates in either direction down concentration gradients upon activation. While the substrates are similar, several differences make comparisons between Mfsd2a and phospholipid transporters of limited relevance. First, the shapes of the substrates differ in shape and size – lysophospholipids are smaller and conical while phospholipids are cylindrical. Second, unlike flippases and floppases, Mfsd2a is a secondary transporter, utilizing a sodium electrochemical gradient to drive the transport of lysophospholipids from one leaflet to the other. Third, the overall structure of MFS members is different from P4- ATPases and ABC transporters. Consequently, the mechanism of action between Mfsd2a and flippases such as P4-ATPases and ABC transporters, or floppases is expected to differ.

Being expressed at the blood-brain barrier, Mfsd2a is a potential conduit for drug delivery to the brain. The blood-brain barrier is highly impermeable, protecting the brain from bloodderived molecules, pathogens, and toxins. However, its impermeability poses a challenge for pharmacological treatment of brain diseases. It has been predicted that 98% of small molecule drugs are excluded from the brain by the blood-brain barrier (48). Currently, most drugs used to treat brain diseases are lipid soluble small molecules with a molecular weight of less than 400 Da (49). A small number of drugs traverse the blood-brain barrier by carrier-mediated transport. An example of this is Levodopa, a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, which is a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Levodopa is transported across the blood-brain barrier by the large neutral amino acid transporter, LAT1 (50). Our findings here provide a further refinement of understanding of the structure-activity relationship of LPCs to their transport, and educates the search and design of drugs that can be transported by Mfsd2a. Candidates for transport, whether as a drug itself or as a LPC scaffold, must have a zwitterionic headgroup, but not necessarily a phosphate, and a minimal threshold of hydrophobic character. As the binding pocket is several times larger than LPC, it is sterically feasible to attach a small molecule drug onto LPC or LPC-like scaffolds for delivery across the blood-brain barrier.

In summary, these studies represent a first structural model of human Mfsd2a based on homology modeling and biochemical interrogation. We expect that this model will serve as a foundation for the future development of X-ray crystal structures of the protein, which would provide further insight into the structure and function of this physiologically important transporter required for human brain growth and function.


1. Salem, N., Jr., Litman, B., Kim, H. Y., and Gawrisch, K. (2001) Mechanisms of action of docosahexaenoic acid in the nervous system. Lipids 36, 945-959

2. Bazan, N. G. (2009) Neuroprotectin D1-mediated anti-inflammatory and survival signaling in stroke, retinal degenerations, and Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of lipid research 50 Suppl, S400- 405

3. Baisted, D. J., Robinson, B. S., and Vance, D. E. (1988) Albumin stimulates the release of lysophosphatidylcholine from cultured rat hepatocytes. The Biochemical journal 253, 693-701

4. Edmond, J., Higa, T. A., Korsak, R. A., Bergner, E. A., and Lee, W. N. (1998) Fatty acid transport and utilization for the developing brain. Journal of neurochemistry 70, 1227-1234

5. Lagarde, M., Bernoud, N., Brossard, N., Lemaitre-Delaunay, D., Thies, F., Croset, M., and Lecerf, J. (2001) Lysophosphatidylcholine as a preferred carrier form of docosahexaenoic acid to the brain. Journal of molecular neuroscience : MN 16, 201-204; discussion 215-221

6. Nguyen, L. N., Ma, D., Shui, G., Wong, P., Cazenave-Gassiot, A., Zhang, X., Wenk, M. R., Goh, E. L., and Silver, D. L. (2014) Mfsd2a is a transporter for the essential omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid. Nature 509, 503-506

7. Law, C. J., Maloney, P. C., and Wang, D. N. (2008) Ins and outs of major facilitator superfamily antiporters. Annual review of microbiology 62, 289-305

8. Alakbarzade, V., Hameed, A., Quek, D. Q. Y., Chioza, B. A., Baple, E. L., Cazenave-Gassiot, A., Nguyen, L. N., Wenk, M. R., Ahmad, A. Q., Sreekantan-Nair, A., Weedon, M. N., Rich, P., Patton, M. A., Warner, T. T., Silver, D. L., and Crosby, A. H. (2015) A partially inactivating mutation in the sodium-dependent lysophosphatidylcholine transporter MFSD2A causes a non-lethal microcephaly syndrome. Nat Genet 47, 814-817

9. Ethayathulla, A. S., Yousef, M. S., Amin, A., Leblanc, G., Kaback, H. R., and Guan, L. (2014) Structure-based mechanism for Na(+)/melibiose symport by MelB. Nature communications 5, 3009

10. Guan, L., Mirza, O., Verner, G., Iwata, S., and Kaback, H. R. (2007) Structural determination of wild-type lactose permease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104, 15294-15298

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Lipids link to breast cancer

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Lipids Found Critical to Breast Cancer Cell Proliferation


Scientists in Spain report finding that breast cancer cells need to take up lipids from the extracellular environment so that they can continue to proliferate. The main protein involved in this process is LIPG, an enzyme found in the cell membrane and without which tumor cell growth is arrested. Analyses of more than 500 clinical samples from patients with various kinds of breast tumors reveal that 85% have high levels of LIPG expression.

The research (“FoxA and LIPG Endothelial Lipase Control the Uptake of Extracellular Lipids for Breast Cancer Growth”) is published in Nature Communications.

In Spain, breast cancer is the most common tumor in women and the fourth most common type in both sexes (data from the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology, 2012), registering more than 25,000 new diagnoses each year. According to figures from the World Health Organization, every year 1.38 million new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed and 458,000 people die from this disease (International Agency for Research on Cancer Globocan, 2008).

It was already known that cancer cells require extracellular glucose to grow and that they reprogram their internal machinery to produce greater amounts of lipids. The relevance of this study is that it reveals for the first time that tumor cells must import extracellular lipids to grow.

“This new knowledge related to metabolism could be the Achilles heel of breast cancer,” explains ICREA researcher and Institute for Research in Biomedicine–Barcelona group leader Roger Gomis, Ph.D., co-leader of the study together with Joan J. Guinovart, Ph.D., director of IRB Barcelona and professor at the University of Barcelona. Using animal models and cancer cell cultures, the scientists have demonstrated that blocking of LIPG activity arrests tumor growth.

“What is promising about this new therapeutic target is that LIPG function does not appear to be indispensable for life, so its inhibition may have fewer side effects than other treatments,” explains the first author of the study, Felipe Slebe, a Ph.D. Fellow at IRB Barcelona.

According to Dr. Guinovart, “because LIPG is a membrane protein, it is potentially easier to design a pharmacological agent to block its activity.”

“If a drug were found to block its activity, it could be used to develop more efficient chemotherapy treatments that are less toxic than those currently available,” adds Dr. Gomis.

The scientists are now looking into international collaborations for developing LIPG inhibitors.

FoxA and LIPG endothelial lipase control the uptake of extracellular lipids for breast cancer growth

Felipe SlebeFederico RojoMaria Vinaixa,…Joan AlbanellJoan J. Guinovart & Roger R. Gomis

Nature Communications7,Article number:11199

The mechanisms that allow breast cancer (BCa) cells to metabolically sustain rapid growth are poorly understood. Here we report that BCa cells are dependent on a mechanism to supply precursors for intracellular lipid production derived from extracellular sources and that the endothelial lipase (LIPG) fulfils this function. LIPG expression allows the import of lipid precursors, thereby contributing to BCa proliferation. LIPG stands out as an essential component of the lipid metabolic adaptations that BCa cells, and not normal tissue, must undergo to support high proliferation rates. LIPG is ubiquitously and highly expressed under the control of FoxA1 or FoxA2 in all BCa subtypes. The downregulation of either LIPG or FoxA in transformed cells results in decreased proliferation and impaired synthesis of intracellular lipids.

FoxA1 and FoxA2 in BCa growth

The importance of FoxA1 in BCa cells differentiation and its contribution to controlling the expression of metabolic genes in several other tissues makes this transcription factor a highly attractive target to explain the metabolic alterations reported in BCa. For these reason, we decided to ascertain the metabolic processes controlled by FoxA1 in BCa. We first confirmed the association between high FoxA1 expression (mRNA and protein) and luminal subtype (Fig. 1a). To this end, we used two cohorts of primary breast tumours with annotated clinical features and follow-up. The MSKCC/EMC BCa data set is based on gene expression profiles from an original series of 560 cases10, whereas the Spanish BCa data set (n=439) is a tissue microarray of formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded stage I–III breast tumour specimens11 (details provided in Methods Section). High FoxA1 gene expression significantly correlated with high expression of well-established luminal markers, such as GATA3 and ESR1, in primary tumours (Supplementary Fig. 1a). Next we explored FoxA1 expression beyond the luminal subtype. Lower FoxA1 expression was observed in non-luminal tumours (Fig. 1a,b); however, a subset also expressed higher FoxA1 levels (Supplementary Fig. 1b and Supplementary Table 1). Given that FoxA2, in conjunction with FoxA1, is also involved in the regulation of several metabolic pathways, we determined the expression of this factor in BCa samples. Unfortunately, no FoxA2 probes in the Affymetrix platform used in the MSKCC/EMC data set provided a reliable interpretation. To overcome this limitation, we used tissue arrays of early BCa samples (Spanish BCa set). Histological examination of FoxA2-stained tissue microarray slides from the Spanish BCa set revealed the expression of this factor in six non-luminal samples, which were scored as FoxA1 (examples in Fig. 1b and summarized inSupplementary Table 1). Collectively, the number of FoxA+ BCa samples detected by immunohistochemistry accounted for 81.3% of all samples in the Spanish BCa set (Supplementary Table 1), which represent a significant proportion of BCa and point to the participation of FoxA in this disease, beyond to its involvement in differentiation and control of hormonal responses.

Figure 1: FoxA1 and FoxA2 in BCa growth.

(a, top) FoxA1 mRNA expression in the MSKCC/EMC set. BCa samples were stratified in Luminal A, Luminal B, Her2, triple negative and unknown subgroups. The unknown group represents specimens that were not classified in any group. (bottom) FoxA1 protein levels by IHC staining in Luminal, Her2 and triple negative samples in the Spanish BCa set (cohort of 439 BCa patients). Data is average±s.d. (b) FoxA1 and FoxA2 IHC staining in FFPE human specimens representative of the different BCa subtypes. Six independent cases are depicted. FoxA1 and FoxA2 are expressed mainly in the nuclei of tumour cells. Scale bar, 50μm. (c) FoxA1 and FoxA2 mRNA expression analysis by qRT-PCR and protein expression by western blot in human BCa cell lines compared with HMECs. T-test was used. Data are average±s.e.m.; n= 3. Of note, MDA435 are of melanoma origin. (d) FoxA1 and FoxA2 expression in MCF7, MDA231 and their derivatives cells by qRT-PCR and western blot. FoxA1 and FoxA2 depletion was achieved with a doxycycline-inducible short hairpin vector. FoxA-depleted cells were rescued by expression of FoxA2 in MCF7 cells or FoxA1 in MDA231 cells. Cell populations were cultured in the presence or absence of doxycycline for 6 days. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.;n=3. *P≤0.05, ***P≤0.001 (e, left) Schematic representation of MDA231 and MCF7 cells grown without doxycycline and inoculated in Balb/c nude mice treated with or without doxycycline to induce the expression of the indicated FoxA short hairpins. All tumour cell lines have GFP constitutive expression, and tRFP concomitantly with the short hairpin were expressed in doxycycline treated tumours. (right) Tumour growth of the indicated cell populations inoculated in Balb/c nude mice are determined at the indicated time points. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n= 5–8 tumours. *P≤0.05,**P≤0.01, ***P≤0.001. FFPE, formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded.

Next, we extended our analysis to BCa cell lines for further mechanistic studies. We compared FoxA1 and FoxA2 mRNA expression in four estrogen receptor positive (ER+) (MCF7, T47D, BT474 and ZR75) and four estrogen receptor negative (ER−) (SKBR3, MDA468, BT20 and MDA231) BCa cell lines, a cell line of melanoma origin (MDA435), and human mammary epithelial cells (HMECs). Of note, two of the BCa lines tested were HER2+ (BT474 and SKBR3) (Fig. 1c). All ER+ BCa cells (MCF7, T47D, BT474 and ZR75), the ER−/HER2+ SKBR3 and both triple negative-like MDA468 and BT20 cell lines expressed FoxA1. Interestingly, MDA231 triple negative-like cells expressed high levels of FoxA2 but not FoxA1, and the non-tumour HMECs did not express these factors (Fig. 1c). No BCa cells co-expressed these two proteins (Fig. 1c). Our results suggest that the expression of FoxA transcription factors is a common feature of breast tumours, as well as of BCa cell lines. This notion implies that FoxA factors play a major role in BCa growth, independently of luminal fate specification.

To examine the molecular basis of the contribution of FoxA1 and FoxA2 to BCa growth, we engineered constitutive GFP-luciferase-expressing MCF7 and MDA231 cells with a doxycycline-inducible short-hairpin RNA (sh-RNA) vector targeting either FoxA1 or FoxA2. Doxycycline addition to the cell culture media decreased FoxA expression in both cell lines compared with control cells (ShControl (Dox+) and Sh FoxA1 or Sh FoxA2 (Dox−))(Fig. 1d), with the concomitant expression of tRFP (Supplementary Fig. 1c). Of note, there was no gain of expression of FoxA2 in FoxA1-depleted cells or vice versa (Fig. 1d). Interestingly, cancer cell proliferation was impaired in vitroupon depletion of either FoxA1 or FoxA2 in MCF7 and MDA231 cells, respectively (Supplementary Fig. 1d,e). Similarly, when Balb/c nude mice implanted with xenograft tumours from the above described cellular populations were treated with doxycycline and the short hairpins were induced, striking differences in tumour growth were observed. FoxA1-depleted MCF7 and FoxA2-depleted MDA231 tumour growth was blunted (Fig. 1e and additional controls in Supplementary Fig. 1f. Experimental details in the Supplementary Methods Section). Collectively, these observations confirm that FoxA1 or FoxA2 expression is required for BCa growth.

Previous studies indicate that FoxA1 and FoxA2 transcriptionally regulate common genes in the liver and pancreas that are central to development and metabolism. We therefore hypothesized that crossed expression of FoxA factors could rescue tumour growth by restoring the expression of essential metabolic genes. To this end, we engineered doxycycline-driven shFoxA1 MCF7 cells to express exogenous FoxA2 and doxycycline-driven shFoxA2 MDA231 cells to express exogenous FoxA1 (Fig. 1d). Interestingly, when these BCa modified cells were implanted in Balb/c nude mice and FoxA depletion was induced with doxycycline, the sustained expression of another FoxA factor (FoxA2 in MCF7 and FoxA1 in MDA231 cells) was sufficient for tumours to continuously grow (Fig. 1e and additional controls in Supplementary Fig. 1f). Quantitative real-time PCR (qRT-PCR) analysis confirmed FoxA expression in the distinct tumour populations ex-vivo (Supplementary Fig. 1g). These results showed that retention of minimal levels of FoxA1 or FoxA2 expression is necessary for BCa cell growth.

FoxA1- and FoxA2-regulated transcripts for BCa growth

Figure 2: A genomic approach to identify FoxA1- and FoxA2-regulated transcripts in MCF7 and MDA231 cells.

(a) FACS profiling of MCF7 and MDA231 cells derived from tumours isolated from mice on the basis of the expression of GFP+ and RFP− (control group) or GFP+ and tRFP+ (knockdown and rescue groups). (b) Representation of the transcripts up- and downregulated by FoxA in MCF7 and MDA231 cells isolated from tumours. Up- and downregulated transcripts present a Bayesian false discovery rate below 5% and fold change >2.5. (c) LIPG, Bcl2 and Cdh11OB mRNA levels of the indicated genetically modified MCF7 and MDA231 tumour xenografts analysed by qRT-PCR. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n= 5–8 tumours. *P≤0.05, ***P≤0.001. (d) LIPG protein expression in constitutive shFoxA1 MCF7 or shFoxA2 MDA231 cells. (e) Promoter reporter assay in HEK 293 cells. Cells were transfected with LIPG promoter reporter and FoxA1 or FoxA2 expressing vectors when indicated. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n=3. ****P≤0.0001.

LIPG expression in BCa

Next, we showed that LIPG expression in primary tumours was specific to BCa tumour cells and not to other stroma cellular entities (Fig. 3a). Subsequently, we tested LIPG expression in normal breast epithelia and interrogated 20 samples from mammoplasty reductions. Normal breast epithelial cells showed a lower expression of LIPG than cells from tumour specimens (Fig. 3b). Similar results were obtained for LIPG protein levels in a panel from BCa lines compared with HMEC cells. Of the cellular populations tested, the eight BCa cell lines expressing FoxA1 or FoxA2 had very high levels of LIPG protein compared with the melanoma MDA435 cell line and the human epithelial cell (Fig. 3c). Consistent with this observation, 83.8% of BCa samples in the Spanish tumour cohort were LIPG+ (Fig. 3d and Supplementary Table 3), and LIPG expression correlated with FoxA expression (Spearman correlation; r=0.477, P=0.000001; Fig. 3e). Further analysis showed that LIPG expression levels in primary tumours do not have the capacity to stratify patients for differential risk of overall or disease-free survival (Supplementary Fig. 2a) and are not dependent on estrogen signalling (Supplementary Fig. 2b), thus reinforcing the notion that LIPG is essential for BCa growth.

Figure 3: LIPG contributes to BCa growth.

a) Representative LIPG IHC staining on primary BCa tissues (cohort of 439 BCa patients). LIPG is expressed in the cytoplasm of tumour cells. Faint staining is also detected in the extracellular area. Scale bar, 50μm. (b) Representative LIPG IHC staining in normal breast tissue from mammoplasty reductions. Weak LIPG expression occurs in epithelial cells from ducts and lobuli. Scale bar, 50μm. (c) LIPG protein expression in human cancer cell lines compared with HMECs. Actin was used as loading control.*Unspecific band. Of note, MDA435 are of melanoma origin. (d) LIPG protein levels by IHC staining in Luminal, Her2, and triple negative samples in the Spanish BCa set (cohort of 439 BCa patients). Data is average±s.d. (e) Spearman correlation (P=0.000001) between FoxA and LIPG IHC staining intensities in Spanish BCa set (cohort of 439 BCa patients). (f) Left panel, in vitro proliferation curves of MCF7 and MDA231 cells transduced with a control or a LIPG short hairpin. Data are average±s.e.m.; n=3. (right) LIPG protein expression in shLIPG MCF7 and shLIPG MDA231 cells. The blot shown is representative of three independent experiments. P value is the result of T-test.**P≤0.01, ***P≤0.001. (g) Tumour growth of the indicated cell populations inoculated in Balb/c nude mice are determined at the indicated time points.P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n= 6–8 tumours. *P≤0.05.

LIPG is a phospholipase located in the cytosol and cellular membrane and has been shown to hydrolyse extracellular phospholipids from high-density lipoprotein that are afterwards incorporated into intracellular lipid species thus providing lipid precursors of cell metabolism17, 18. Thus we questioned whether LIPG regulates essential lipid intake in BCa and whether it is necessary for proliferation. To validate this hypothesis, we genetically downregulated the expression of this protein in MCF7 and MDA231 cells by means of sh-RNA (Fig. 3f and Supplementary Fig. 2c). LIPG depletion blunted BCa cell capacity to proliferate in vitro (Fig. 3f), as previously observed in FoxA-depleted cells (Supplementary Fig. 1d,e), and caused a reduction in invasion and self-renewal properties (Supplementary Fig. 3a–d). Similarly, LIPG-depleted cells were unable to grow tumours in vivo (Fig. 3g).

LIPG induces BCa cells lipid metabolic reprograming

Figure 4: LIPG regulates the uptake of lipids in BCa cells inducing a lipid metabolic reprograming.

LIPG regulates the uptake of lipids in BCa cells inducing a lipid metabolic reprograming.

(a) Schematic representation of LIPG action. (b) Heat map representation of the downregulated (blue) lipids identified by MS/MS in the cell homogenates of MCF7 or MDA231 LIPG-depleted cells compared with shControl cells. Depicted lipids have a fold change >1.5 and P value<0.05 using the Welch’s t-testn=5. (c) Downregulated lipid species (previously identified in b) that are common to LIPG-depleted MCF7 and LIPG-depleted MDA231 cells. ShControl cells (red box), and shLIPG (blue box). P values are <0.05 and calculated using Welch’s t-test, n=5. Whiskers extend to a maximum of 1.5 × IQR beyond the box. (d) Heat map representation of the upregulated (red) lipids identified by MS/MS in the media of MCF7 or MDA231 LIPG-depleted cells compared with the corresponding shControl cells. Characterized lipids have a fold change >1.5 and P value<0.05 using the Welch’s t-test n=5. (e) Upregulated lipid species in the media (previously identified in d) that are common to LIPG-depleted MCF7 and LIPG-depleted MDA231 cells. ShControl cells (red box), and shLIPG cells (blue box). P values are <0.05 and calculated using Welch’s t-test, n=5. Whiskers extend to a maximum of 1.5 × IQR beyond the box. (f) Heat map representation of the MS/MS downregulated (blue) lipids in the cell media of MCF7/MDA231 LIPG-depleted or shControl cells (as described in d) compared with fresh medium (without cell incubation). Depicted lipid species have a log2 fold change>1.5 and P value<0.05 using the Welch’s t-test n=5. (g) MDA231 and MCF7 cell growth for 48h in complete medium: medium containing 10% FBS 10%); lipoprotein-free medium: medium containing 10% free lipoprotein FBS; and LPC (18:0): medium containing 10% free lipoprotein FBS and 20μM of LPC (18:0). P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n=3. **P≤0.01, ***P≤0.001, ****P≤0.0001. (h) Above, schematic representation of the experimental protocol used. (bottom) Tumour growth of the indicated cell populations inoculated in Balb/c nude mice treated with high-fat diet (HFD) are determined at the indicated time points. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n= 6–8 tumours. *P≤0.05, **P≤0.01. Inside graph, plasma cholesterol levels of animals treated with standard diet (SD) or HFD. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n= 4 animals per group. **P≤0.01, ***P≤0.001.

LIPG location has been shown to be functional on the outer face of the cellular membrane (Fig. 4a)18, thus we postulated the possibility that BCa cells are dependent on LIPG function to access extracellular lipids to support their growth needs. To test this notion, we profiled the media of control and LIPG-depleted MCF7 and MDA231 cells following the same liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry-based untargeted lipidomic approach as for cell homogenates. LIPG depletion prevented the absorption of particular lipids from the media (Supplementary Fig. 4a). The structural identification of the lipids by MS/MS confirms the absence of degradation of glycerophospholipids belonging to the LPC class in both MCF7 and MDA231 cells, which is depicted by higher levels in the media of these species in LIPG-depleted when compared with control cells (Fig. 4d,e). Interestingly when we analysed the LPCs species in the media of control and LIPG-depleted cells and compared with fresh media (without cells), all LPC species from control cell media were decreased. This reduction was weaker in the media of Sh LIPG cells, indicating that LIPG-depleted cells have a defect in processing and importing of pre-existing lipid species from the medium (Fig. 4f).

Finally, we evaluated which of the commonly identified potential substrates of LIPG sustains BCa cell proliferation. Initially, we confirmed that the growth of MCF7 and MDA231 cells is impaired when grown in vitro in lipoprotein-depleted media (Fig. 4g). Next we tested the capacity of LPC (18:0) to rescue BCa cell growth in the absence of lipoproteins and confirmed that this lysophosphatidylcholine was able to restore the cells’ capacity to proliferate (Fig. 4g). In accordance, this process was dependent on LIPG expression (Fig. 4g). Similarly, LIPG-depleted cells were not able to grow in vivo in animals fed with high-fat diet (Fig. 4h) indicating that LIPG is indispensable to process the extracellular lipids and mediate their uptake by the cells, irrespectively of the concentration of lipid substrates in circulation, a phenotype also observed in FoxA-depleted cells (Fig. 4h).

LIPG activity supports BCa growth

Figure 5: LIPG activity is essential for BCa growth.

LIPG activity is essential for BCa growth.

(a, top) Homology 3D structural model of LIPG (backbone coloured according to the QMEANlocal parameter values; red residues with low error). The heavy atoms of the three catalytic residues are shown explicitly and the residue mutated in this study is shown in green (Asp 193). (b) FoxA1, FoxA2 and LIPG protein expression in MCF7, MDA231 and their derivative cells determine by western blot. FoxA1 and FoxA2 depletion was achieved with a doxycycline-inducible short hairpin vector. FoxA-depleted cells were rescued by expression of a WT or Inactive LIPG. Cell populations were cultured in the presence or absence of doxycycline for 6 days. *blots represent different exposition times. (c) Tumour growth of the indicated cell populations inoculated in Balb/c nude mice are determined at the indicated time points. Pvalue is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n=5–8 tumours. *P≤0.05, **P≤0.01. (d) MDA231 and MCF7 cell growth for 48h treated with DMSO (control), FAS inhibitor (C75) and/or lipase inhibitor (Orlistat). For MDA231 cells C75 was used at a final concentration of 10μgml−1 and for MCF7 cells 8μgml−1. Orlistat was used at a final concentration of 30 or 10μgml−1 in MCF7 or MD231 respectively. Pvalue is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n=3.*P≤0.05, **P≤0.01, ***P≤0.001. (e) Forty-eight hours cell growth of MDA231 or MCF7 cells overexpressing exogenous WT or Inactive LIPG. Cells were treated with DMSO (control) and FAS inhibitor (C75) at a final concentration of 20μgml−1. P value is the result of T-test. Data are average±s.e.m.; n=3.***P≤0.001, ****P≤0.0001 (f) Schematic representation showing how FoxA controls LIPG and lipid metabolism to support tumour growth.

As previous reports showed that de novo lipid metabolism is necessary for BCa growth3, 22, we next questioned whether this lipid synthesis was sufficient or, instead, whether exogenous sources are also required to support BCa cell growth and proliferation, as suggested by our experimental data. To this end, we inhibited the activity of fatty acid synthase (FAS) in BCa cells by means of the chemical inhibitor C75 (ref. 23). FAS activity is crucial for de novo lipid synthesis in cancer cells3,22. To test the complementarity of both de novo and/or exogenous lipid supplies, we used a C75 concentration causing a 50% reduction in BCa cell growth in vitro 48h post incubation (Fig. 5d andSupplementary Fig. 5d). Similarly, we tested the contribution of LIPG inhibition by means of treatment with a lipase inhibitor, Orlistat21. A specific dose causing a 50% reduction in the growth of each BCa cell line was further used (Fig. 5d and Supplementary Fig. 5d). Interestingly, concomitant treatment with FAS and LIPG inhibitors caused an additive effect, blunting BCa cell growth (Fig. 5d). Next, we evaluated whether LIPG activity was sufficient to rescue the chemical inhibition of FAS. To this end, we overexpressed WT and inactive LIPG and grew MCF7 and MDA231 cells in the presence or absence of a high dose of C75 (20mgml−1), which blocks cell growth (Supplementary Fig. 5d). Complete blockade of FAS was not rescued by LIPG (Fig. 5e). Collectively, our results suggest that both exogenous lipid precursors provided by means of LIPG activity and de novo lipid synthesis mediated by FAS are necessary for BCa cell growth.


Here we reveal that FoxA factors provide a central metabolic growth function by specifically regulating LIPG expression, thereby allowing the acquisition of indispensable extracellular lipids for BCa tumour proliferation. FoxA family of transcription factors are expressed in the vast majority of BCa and FoxA1 is expressed across various BCa subtypes. Moreover we show that, in some cases, its absence is associated with the expression of FoxA2. Interestingly, in addition of FoxA1 contribution to luminal commitment24, 25, 26, 27 the factor may drive BCa growth by specifically regulating LIPG levels.

The catalytic activity of LIPG generates extracellular lipid precursors that are imported to fulfill the intracellular production of lipid species (Fig. 5f). LIPG downregulation blocks BCa cell growth, thereby indicating that the import of extracellular lipid precursors is important for the proliferation of these cells. This is a striking observation given that it is generally believed that de novo fatty acid synthesis is the main driver of tumour growth22. Indeed, our experimental data with LIPG-depleted BCa cells revealed a massive decrease of most intracellular glycerolipid intermediates in the synthesis of TG (PC, PE, PG and DG) and their derivatives (LPC and LPE). Accordingly, certain lipid species (LPC) in the media were not decreased in LIPG-depleted cells as much as in control cells, thus indicating that extracellular lipids are the substrates for intracellular lipid production. In particular, we demonstrate the relevance of extracellular LPC (18:0) for BCa cell proliferation in a lipoprotein-depleted medium, a process dependent on LIPG. In this context, a high-fat diet was shown to rescue the absence of a critical intracellular lipase, Monoacylglycerol lipase, for cancer pathogenesis given cancer cells ability to uptake lipids from the extracellular compartment was functional19. Herein, we showed that this rescue mechanism is not functional in BCa cells in the absence of FoxA2 or LIPG. In support of this notion, it is worth noting that extracellular LIPG activity releases fatty acids from high-density lipoprotein phospholipids and these acids are further employed for intracellular lipid production in the human hepatic cell line HepG2 (refs 28, 29).

In conclusion, BCa cells are dependent on a mechanism to supply precursors derived from extracellular sources for intracellular lipid production, and LIPG fulfills this function. Therefore, LIPG stands out as an important component of the lipid metabolic adaptations that BCa cells, and not normal tissue, must undergo to support high proliferation rates. Our results also suggest thatde novo lipid synthesis is necessary but not sufficient to support lipid production for BCa tumour growth. Accordingly, recent clinical studies demonstrate the association between lipids and lipoproteins in circulation and risk of BCa in women with extensive mammographic density. This observation implies that interventions aimed to reduce them may have effect on BCa risk30. All together, these observations make LIPG activity an Achilles heel of luminal and, more importantly, of triple negative/basal-like breast tumours, for which limited therapeutic options are currently available.

In normal cells, the glucose carbon flow is directed into a de novo lipogenic pathway that is regulated, in part, via phosphoinositide-3 kinase (PI-3K)-dependent activation of ATP citrate lyase (ACL), a key rate-limiting, enzyme in de novo lipogenesis. ACL is a cytosolic enzyme that catalyzes the generation of acetyl CoA from citrate. Inhibition of ACL results in a loss of B-cell growth and cell viability [10] .
The plasma membrane and its constituent phosphoinositides form the basis of the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3-K) signaling pathway, which is crucial for cell proliferation and survival. Phosphatase and tensin-homolog deleted on chromosome 10 (PTEN) is a tumor-suppressor protein that regulates phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3-K) signaling by binding to the plasma membrane and hydrolyzing the 3′ phosphate from phosphatidylinositol (3,4,5)-trisphosphate (PI(3,4,5)P3) to form phosphatidylinositol (4,5)-bisphosphate (PI(4,5)P2). Several loss-of-function mutations in PTEN that impair lipid phosphatase activity and membrane binding are oncogenic, leading to the development of a variety of cancers. Of these three residues, R335 was observed to interact with the membrane to the greatest extent across all of the simulations. R335L, in common with several other germline mutations, has been associated with the inherited cancer [11] .
ACLY is up-regulated or activated in several types of cancers, and its inhibition is known to induce proliferation arrest in cancer cells both in vitro and in vivo. The last studies were showed that BCR-mediated signaling is regulated in part by the amount of membrane cholesterol. It was observed that statins (Lovostatin), the pharmacological inhibitors of cholesterol synthesis, induce apoptosis of CLL cells in vitro and in vivo. Also the ectopic expression of CD5 in a B-cell line stimulates the transcription of genes involved in the synthesis of cholesterol [12] .

[10] Zaidi N, Swinnen JV, Smans K. ATP-citrate lyase: a key player in cancer metabolism Cancer Res; 2012 (11): 3709-14.

[11] Craig N, Mark S.P. Sansom. Defining the Membrane-Associated State of the PTEN Tumor Suppressor Protein. Biophys J 2013; 5; 104(3: 613–21.

[12] Tomowiak C, Kennel A, Gary-Gouy, Hadife N. High Membrane Cholesterol in CLL B-Cells and Differential Expression of Cholesterol Synthesis Genes in IG GENE Unmutated vs Mutated Cells. British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research 2012; 2(3): 313-26.


Cancer’s Vanguard

Exosomes are emerging as key players in metastasis.

By Catherine Offord | April 1, 2016

PREPARING THE TURF: Before tumor cells arrive at their metastatic destination, part of the site is readied for them. One recent study of liver metastasis in mice found that resident macrophages called Kupffer cells take up exosomes from the original tumor (1). Additionally, macrophages from the bone marrow show up upon the release of fibronectin by other liver cells called stellate cells (2). A current proposal for additional steps in metastatic niche development includes the recruitment of epithelial cells and fibroblasts, which contribute to angiogenesis, and, finally, the arrival of tumor cells themselves (3).© IKUMI KAYAMA/STUDIO KAYAMA

In 2005, David Lyden noticed something unexpected. He and his colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College had been researching metastasis—the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. The team had shown that bone marrow–derived cells (BMDCs) were recruited to future metastatic sites before the arrival of tumor cells, confirming that metastasis occurred after a habitable microenvironment, or “premetastatic niche,” had been prepared.1

But carefully studying images of this microenvironment in the lung tissue of mice, Lyden saw something else. Amongst the BMDCs, the micrographs showed tiny specks, far too small to be cells, gathering at the future site of metastasis. “I said, ‘What are these viruses doing here?’” recalls Lyden. “I had no idea about exosomes, microvesicles, and microparticles.”

Those specks, Lyden would come to realize, were in fact primary tumor–derived exosomes. These membrane-enclosed vesicles packed full of molecules are now attracting growing attention as important mediators of intercellular communication, particularly when it comes to cancer’s insidious capacity to spread from one organ to another.

Preparing the ground

Tumors require a community of support cells, including fibroblasts, BMDCs, and endothelial cells, to provide functional and structural assistance and to modulate immune system behavior. Bringing together the first members of this community before the arrival of tumor cells is all part of cancer’s survival strategy, says Joshua Hood, a cancer researcher at the University of Louisville.

“It wouldn’t be efficient for tumor cells to strike out on their own, and just say, ‘Oh, here we are!’” he says. “They would run the risk of being destroyed.” Preparing a “nest” in advance makes the process much safer. “Then the tumor can just efficiently come along and set up shop without ever having to fight much of a battle with the immune system.”

But although Lyden’s group had shown that this preparation was taking place, it remained unclear how such a process might be regulated. For the next few years, many cancer researchers believed that tumor cells must communicate with the premetastatic niche primarily through tumor-secreted signaling molecules such as cytokines.

Meanwhile, research into extracellular vesicles, previously considered biological garbage bags, was revealing new modes of intercellular communication. In 2007, a group of scientists in Sweden discovered that exosomes, tiny vesicles measuring just 30 nanometers to 100 nanometers across, transport mRNA and microRNAs intercellularly, with the potential to effect changes in protein synthesis in recipient cells.2 A new means for tumors to regulate distant cellular environments came into focus, and research on exosomes exploded. In 2011, Hood and his colleagues showed that exosomes facilitate melanoma metastasis through the lymphatic system.3 The following year, Lyden’s group demonstrated that tumor-derived exosomes can direct BMDCs to one of melanoma’s most common sites of metastasis, the lung.4 Exosomes, it seemed, had been underestimated.

Tiny terraformers

Armed with the knowledge that exosomes are involved in multiple stages of melanoma metastasis, Lyden’s lab went searching for the vesicles’ potential role in the metastasis of other cancers. Turning to pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC)—one of the most lethal cancers in humans—postdoctoral researcher Bruno Costa-Silva led a series of exhaustive in vitro and in vivo experiments in mouse models to detail the process of premetastatic niche formation in the liver, PDAC’s most common destination. The team’s results, published last May, reveal an intricate series of sequential steps—mediated by PDAC-derived exosomes (Nature Cell Biol, 17:816-26, 2015).

Using fluorescence labeling, Lyden’s group observed that PDAC-derived exosomes are taken up by Kupffer cells, specialized macrophages lining the outer walls of blood vessels in the liver. There, the exosomes trigger the cells’ secretion of transforming growth factor β (a type of cytokine involved in cell proliferation), plus the production of fibronectin by neighboring hepatic stellate cells, and the recruitment of BMDCs.

The researchers also showed that this cascade of events could be inhibited by depleting exosomal macrophage migratory inhibitory factor (MIF), an abundant protein in PDAC exosomes. “If you target the specific proteins of exosomes, you can reduce metastasis,” explains coauthor Héctor Peinado, leader of the microenvironment and metastasis group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center.

For Hood, the findings add to a developing picture of exosomes’ vital role as “vanguard” in the progression of cancer. “It’s like the colonization of a new planet,” he says. “They’re terraforming the environment to make it hospitable.”



  • B. Costa-Silva et al., “Pancreatic cancer exosomes initiate pre-metastatic niche formation in the liver,”Nature Cell Biol, 17:816-26, 2015.
  • A. Hoshino et al., “Tumour exosome integrins determine organotropic metastasis,” Nature, 527:329-35, 2015.
  • L. Zhang et al., “Microenvironment-induced PTEN loss by exosomal microRNA primes brain metastasis outgrowth,”Nature, 527:100-04, 2015.

Internal mail

Although research was revealing the steps involved in forming premetastatic sites, it was less clear how these sites were being selected. “This has always been a great mystery in cancer,” says Ayuko Hoshino, a research associate in Lyden’s lab. “Why do certain cancers metastasize to certain organs?”

One theory, proposed in 1928 by pathologist James Ewing, suggested that anatomical and mechanical factors explained organ specificity in metastasis. The premetastatic niche, then, might form wherever exosomes are likely to land. But this couldn’t be the whole story, says Hoshino. “For instance, there’s eye melanoma. Thinking about that site, you could imagine it metastasizing to the brain. But actually, it almost only metastasizes to the liver.”

Because exosomes arrive at metastatic sites before tumor cells, the team reasoned, perhaps the exosomes themselves were organotropic (i.e., attracted to particular organs or tissues). Sure enough, Lyden says, when Hoshino and Costa-Silva began injecting tumor-derived exosomes into mice, “their preliminary findings were that wherever they injected the exosomes, the pancreatic cancer ones were ending up in the liver and the breast metastasis exosomes would end up in the lung.”

Using mass spectrometry, the researchers analyzed the protein content of exosomes from lung-tropic, liver-tropic, and brain-tropic tumors. They found that the composition of exosomes’ integrins—membrane proteins involved in cell adhesion—was destination-specific (Nature, 527:329-35, 2015). Exosomes bearing integrin α6β4, for example, were directed to the lung, where they could prepare a premetastatic niche potent enough even for normally bone-tropic tumor cells to colonize. Integrin αvβ5, meanwhile, directed metastasis to the liver.

The researchers also showed that exosomal integrins didn’t necessarily correspond to the parent-cell proteins, making exosomes potentially better indicators of where a cancer will spread than the tumor cells themselves. “We can show that an integrin that’s high in the tumor cell might be completely absent in the tumor exosome or vice versa,” says Lyden, adding that, taken together, the results point to a role for exosomes in “dictating the future sites of metastasis.”

“It’s a beautiful story,” says Dihua Yu, a molecular and cellular oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “This is a very novel finding that gives really good indicators for potential strategies to intervene in metastasis.”

Metastatic crosstalk

In the same month that Lyden’s group published its work on organotropism, Yu’s own lab published a different exosome study—one that told another side of the story.

Yu and her colleagues had found that when tumor cells in mice metastasized to the brain, they downregulated expression of a tumor suppressor gene called PTEN, and became primed for growth at the metastatic site. When the tumor cells were taken out of the microenvironment and put in culture, however, they restored normal PTEN expression.

The researchers demonstrated that a microRNA from astrocytes—star-shape glial cells in the brain—reversibly downregulated the levels of PTEN transcripts in the tumor cells, but they couldn’t figure out how the microRNA was getting into the tumor. Blocking “obvious signaling pathways,” such as gap junctions, failed to have an effect, Yu says.

Scrutinizing astrocyte-conditioned media using electron microscopy, the researchers identified spherical vesicles between 30 nanometers and 100 nanometers in diameter—the defining size of exosomes. Exposing mouse tumor cells to these vesicles increased cell microRNA content and reduced PTENexpression (Nature, 527:100-04, 2015). The study revealed yet another role for exosomes in the communication between tumors and their microenvironment.

The findings were a surprise, says Yu, not least because they showed a different perspective from the bulk of recent research. “We’re talking about astrocytes in the brain secreting exosomes to give welcome help to the cancer cells,” she says.

“I find it an extremely interesting paper because it shows that the astrocytes can change the whole phenotype of the tumor in the brain,” says Lyden. He adds that the results underline the importance of studying the mutational status of tumors at various sites. “All this work in exosomes, it adds to the complexity,” he says. “We can’t just target tumor cells at the primary site. We’ll have to understand all the details of metastasis if we’re really going to tackle it.”

What’s next?

The discovery of multiple roles for exosomes in metastasis has generated excitement about the potential for their use in diagnostics and treatment. As protective containers of tumor-derived genetic material, exosomes could provide information about the status of cancer progression. And as mediators of premetastatic niche formation, they make obvious targets for inhibition. (See “Banking on Blood Tests,”here.)

Exosomes might even be useful as vehicles to deliver drugs because they’re patient-matched and “naturally designed to function in a biocompatible way with living systems,” says Hood. “You could take them out of people, and at some point down the road try to have patients be their own nanofactory, using their own particles for treatment purposes.”

Pancreatic cancer exosomes initiate pre-metastatic nihe formation in the liver

Bruno Costa-SilvaNicole M. AielloAllyson J. Ocean, et al.   Nature Cell Biology 2015; 17,816–826

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas (PDACs) are highly metastatic with poor prognosis, mainly due to delayed detection. We hypothesized that intercellular communication is critical for metastatic progression. Here, we show that PDAC-derived exosomes induce liver pre-metastatic niche formation in naive mice and consequently increase liver metastatic burden. Uptake of PDAC-derived exosomes by Kupffer cells caused transforming growth factor β secretion and upregulation of fibronectin production by hepatic stellate cells. This fibrotic microenvironment enhanced recruitment of bone marrow-derived macrophages. We found that macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) was highly expressed in PDAC-derived exosomes, and its blockade prevented liver pre-metastatic niche formation and metastasis. Compared with patients whose pancreatic tumours did not progress, MIF was markedly higher in exosomes from stage I PDAC patients who later developed liver metastasis. These findings suggest that exosomal MIF primes the liver for metastasis and may be a prognostic marker for the development of PDAC liver metastasis.

Ayuko HoshinoBruno Costa-SilvaTang-Long ShenGoncalo RodriguesAyako HashimotoMilica Tesic Mark, et al. Nature Nov 2015; 527,329–335

Ever since Stephen Paget’s 1889 hypothesis, metastatic organotropism has remained one of cancer’s greatest mysteries. Here we demonstrate that exosomes from mouse and human lung-, liver- and brain-tropic tumour cells fuse preferentially with resident cells at their predicted destination, namely lung fibroblasts and epithelial cells, liver Kupffer cells and brain endothelial cells. We show that tumour-derived exosomes uptaken by organ-specific cells prepare the pre-metastatic niche. Treatment with exosomes from lung-tropic models redirected the metastasis of bone-tropic tumour cells. Exosome proteomics revealed distinct integrin expression patterns, in which the exosomal integrins α6β4 and α6β1 were associated with lung metastasis, while exosomal integrin αvβ5 was linked to liver metastasis. Targeting the integrins α6β4 and αvβ5 decreased exosome uptake, as well as lung and liver metastasis, respectively. We demonstrate that exosome integrin uptake by resident cells activates Src phosphorylation and pro-inflammatory S100 gene expression. Finally, our clinical data indicate that exosomal integrins could be used to predict organ-specific metastasis.

  1. Paget, S. The distribution of secondary growths in cancer of the breast. 1889. Cancer Metastasis Rev. 8, 98101 (1989)
  2. Hart, I. R. & Fidler, I. J. Role of organ selectivity in the determination of metastatic patterns of B16 melanoma. Cancer Res. 40, 22812287 (1980)
  3. Müller, A. et al. Involvement of chemokine receptors in breast cancer metastasis. Nature410, 5056 (2001)
  4. Weilbaecher, K. N., Guise, T. A. & McCauley, L. K. Cancer to bone: a fatal attraction. Nature Rev. Cancer 11, 411425 (2011)
  5. Zhou, W. et al. Cancer-secreted miR-105 destroys vascular endothelial barriers to promote metastasis. Cancer Cell 25, 501515 (2014)
  6. Chang, Q. et al. The IL-6/JAK/Stat3 feed-forward loop drives tumorigenesis and metastasis.Neoplasia 15, 848862 (2013)
  7. Lu, X. & Kang, Y. Organotropism of breast cancer metastasis. J. Mammary Gland Biol. Neoplasia 12, 153162 (2007)


Microenvironment-induced PTEN loss by exosomal microRNA primes brain metastasis outgrowth

Lin ZhangSiyuan ZhangJun YaoFrank J. LoweryQingling ZhangWen-Chien Huang, et al.  Nature  Nov 2015; 527,100–104

The development of life-threatening cancer metastases at distant organs requires disseminated tumour cells’ adaptation to, and co-evolution with, the drastically different microenvironments of metastatic sites1. Cancer cells of common origin manifest distinct gene expression patterns after metastasizing to different organs2. Clearly, the dynamic interaction between metastatic tumour cells and extrinsic signals at individual metastatic organ sites critically effects the subsequent metastatic outgrowth3, 4. Yet, it is unclear when and how disseminated tumour cells acquire the essential traits from the microenvironment of metastatic organs that prime their subsequent outgrowth. Here we show that both human and mouse tumour cells with normal expression of PTEN, an important tumour suppressor, lose PTEN expression after dissemination to the brain, but not to other organs. The PTEN level in PTEN-loss brain metastatic tumour cells is restored after leaving the brain microenvironment. This brain microenvironment-dependent, reversible PTEN messenger RNA and protein downregulation is epigenetically regulated by microRNAs from brain astrocytes. Mechanistically, astrocyte-derived exosomes mediate an intercellular transfer of PTEN-targeting microRNAs to metastatic tumour cells, while astrocyte-specific depletion of PTEN-targeting microRNAs or blockade of astrocyte exosome secretion rescues the PTEN loss and suppresses brain metastasis in vivo. Furthermore, this adaptive PTEN loss in brain metastatic tumour cells leads to an increased secretion of the chemokine CCL2, which recruits IBA1-expressing myeloid cells that reciprocally enhance the outgrowth of brain metastatic tumour cells via enhanced proliferation and reduced apoptosis. Our findings demonstrate a remarkable plasticity of PTEN expression in metastatic tumour cells in response to different organ microenvironments, underpinning an essential role of co-evolution between the metastatic cells and their microenvironment during the adaptive metastatic outgrowth. Our findings signify the dynamic and reciprocal cross-talk between tumour cells and the metastatic niche; importantly, they provide new opportunities for effective anti-metastasis therapies, especially of consequence for brain metastasis patients.

  1. Quail, D. F. & Joyce, J.A. Microenvironmental regulation of tumor progression and metastasis. Nature Med. 19, 14231437 (2013)
  2. Park, E. S. et al. Cross-species hybridization of microarrays for studying tumor transcriptome of brain metastasis. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 1745617461 (2011)
  3. Joyce, J. A. & Pollard, J. W. Microenvironmental regulation of metastasis. Nature Rev. Cancer 9, 239252 (2009)
  4. Vanharanta, S. & Massagué, J. Origins of metastatic traits. Cancer Cell 24, 410421 (2013)
  5. Gray, J. Cancer: genomics of metastasis. Nature 464, 989990 (2010)
  6. Friedl, P. & Alexander, S. Cancer invasion and the microenvironment: plasticity and reciprocity. Cell 147, 9921009 (2011)

Banking on Blood Tests

How close are liquid biopsies to replacing current diagnostics?

By Jyoti Madhusoodanan | April 1, 2016

No matter where a tumor lurks in the body, its secrets circulate in the blood. Stray tumor cells begin metastatic migrations by slipping into the vasculature. Vesicles secreted by cancer cells and free-floating DNA are also released into the bloodstream. Because these bits of cellular debris are a grab-bag of biomarkers that could both signal a cancer’s presence and predict its progression and response to treatment, the use of blood-based tests, or liquid biopsies, to detect and evaluate them is now drawing significant commercial interest.

Last year, San Diego–based Pathway Genomics began advertising a screen “for the early detection of up to 10 different cancer types in high-risk populations.” But the screen had only been tested in already-diagnosed patients, not in at-risk individuals, and within weeks of making it commercially available, the company received an FDA notice to provide more information about their promotional claims before further marketing. “We . . . have not found any published evidence that this test or any similar test has been clinically validated as a screening tool for early detection of cancer in high risk individuals,” the agency wrote.

The Forces of Cancer

A tumor’s physical environment fuels its growth and causes treatment resistance.

By Lance L. Munn and Rakesh K. Jain | April 1, 2016

Ahelium balloon tugs gently at the end of its string. The tension in the string resists the buoyant force of the helium, and the elastic nature of the balloon’s rubber contains the helium gas as it tries   to expand. Cutting the string or poking the rubber with a pin reveals the precarious balance between the forces, upsets the equilibrium, and sets the system into motion.

Some biological tissues also exist in such a state of offsetting forces. The most familiar example is the balance between blood pressure and the elastic tension in the cardiovascular system that contains and conveys blood without bursting or collapsing. And in tumors, both solid and fluid forces are generated that make the cancerous tissue a lot like that helium balloon: cut a tumor with a scalpel and it rapidly swells and deforms as pent-up forces break free from structural elements that are severed.1

One force that is notably higher in tumors than in healthy tissues is fluid pressure, resulting from hyperpermeable, leaky blood vessels and a dearth of draining lymphatic vessels. Researchers have known since the 1950s that tumors exhibit elevated fluid pressure, but the implications for tumor progression and drug delivery were not realized until the late 1980s. That was when we (R.K.J. and colleagues) used a mathematical model to predict—and subsequently validate in animal and human tumors—that a precipitous drop in fluid pressure at the tumor–normal tissue interface causes interstitial fluid to ooze out of the tumor.2 This seeping fluid pushes drugs, growth factors, and cancer cells into the surrounding tissue and lymphatics, reducing drug delivery and facilitating local tumor invasion and distant metastasis.

Based on this insight, we suggested in 2001 that anti-angiogenic drugs could be used to lower a tumor’s fluid pressure and improve treatment outcome.3 This hypothesis changed the thinking about how existing anti-angiogenesis therapies actually work and spurred research into other physical forces acting in cancer.4 In the last 15 years, researchers have identified diverse sources of increased pressure in tumors, which may serve as possible targets for cancer therapy.5 For example, solid forces exerted by the extracellular matrix can be reduced by treatment with drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for controlling hypertension (angiotensin blockers) or diabetes (metformin). Retrospective clinical studies have found improved survival in cancer patients who were treated with these agents, which are now being tested in prospective trials for a variety of solid tumors.6,7

Tumors under pressure

In vitro experiments showing that cancer cells actively migrate in response to fluid flow have supported the hypothesis that fluid escaping from the boundary of a tumor may guide the invasive migration of cancer cells toward lymphatic or blood vessels, potentially encouraging metastasis. There remains controversy over how the fluid forces induce the migration; the cells may respond to chemical gradients created by the cells and distorted by the flowing fluid,8 or the fluid may activate cell mechanosensors.9 Because of the potential for new therapeutic interventions, the transduction of mechanical fluid forces into biochemical signals by cell mechanosensors is an active area of investigation. In a more direct manner, the fluid flow can physically carry cancer cells to lymph nodes.

Fluid forces may also promote tumor progression by recruiting blood vessels into the cancerous mass.10 Because tumor blood vessels are leaky, plasma can pass freely between vessels that have different pressures. When this happens at the periphery of a tumor, where angiogenic growth factors are prevalent, there can be synergistic induction of new vessel sprouts.


And fluid pressure is just one of the many forces in a tumor that can influence its development and progression. Tumors also develop increased solid pressure, as compared with normal tissue, stemming from the uncontrolled division of cancer cells and from the infiltration and proliferation of stromal and immune cells from the surrounding tissue and circulation. High-molecular-weight polysaccharides known as hydrogels found in the extracellular matrix (ECM) also add pressure on a tumor. The most well-studied of these hydrogels is hyaluronan; when the polysaccharide absorbs water, it swells, pressing on surrounding cells and structural elements of the tissue.

The ECM contains a highly interconnected network of collagen and other fibers and is normally very good at resisting and containing such tension. It also has support from infiltrating myofibroblasts, which detect areas where the ECM density or tension is not normal and initiate actomyosin-based contraction of collagen and elastin matrix structures to restore tensional homeostasis. But while this repair effort is typically effective in healthy tissues, uncooperative tumor cells interfere with these efforts, both by themselves generating pressure and by hyperactivating cancer-associated fibroblasts to produce more ECM and thus produce even more force.11

Because cell growth and ECM composition are not spatially uniform in cancer, tumors are subjected to multiple, dispersed sources of pressure associated with matrix “containers” of various sizes. This solid pressure from within the tumor deforms the surrounding normal tissue, potentially facilitating the metastatic escape of cancer cells. The physical forces also compress blood vessels and lymphatic vessels in the tumor and adjacent normal tissue,12 increasing the fluid pressure in the tumor13  and interrupting the delivery of nutrients, removal of waste, and entry of tumor-targeted drugs via the blood.4 Insufficient blood flow also results in poor oxygenation, which has been linked to immunosuppression, inflammation, invasion, and metastasis, as well as lowered efficacy of chemo-, radio-, and immunotherapies.4 These are all indirect consequences of solid stresses in and on tumors.

Such forces can also have direct effects on cancer cells, and may serve as independent triggers for tumor invasion. Mechanical forces are central to many of our sense systems, such as hearing, touch, and pain, and to tissue maintenance programs, such as bone regeneration and blood vessel remodeling. In these systems, mechanical forces are transduced by mechanosensors to activate downstream biochemical and genetic pathways. (See “Full Speed Ahead,” The Scientist, December 2009.) Cancer cells may similarly be able to sense and respond to dynamic forces in tumors. We have shown, for example, that metastatic cancer cells exposed to compressive stresses in a culture dish undergo a phenotypic transformation to become more invasive,14 and others have shown that compressive forces applied in vivo can also induce oncogenes in normal epithelium of the mouse colon.15

It is thus becoming quite clear that the physical environment can influence a tumor’s development and spread, and it may even be possible for physical forces to kick-start cancerous growth.


Full Speed Ahead

Physical forces acting in and around cells are fast—and making waves in the world of molecular biology.

By Jef Akst | December 1, 2009

When it comes to survival, few things are more important than being able to respond quickly to a change of circumstances. And when it comes to fast-acting indicators, it turns out that signals induced by physical forces acting in and around cells, appropriately dubbed biomechanical signals, are the champions of the cellular world.

“If you look at this mechanical signaling, it’s about 30 meters per second—that’s very fast,” says bioengineer Ning Wang of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That’s faster than most family-owned speedboats, and second only to electrical (e.g., nerve) impulses in biological signaling. By comparison, small chemicals moving by diffusion average a mere 2 micrometers per second—a speed even the slowest row boater could easily top.

Indeed, when the two signal types were pitted against each other in a cellular race last year, the mechanical signals left chemical signals in their wake, activating proteins at distant sites in the cytoplasm in just a fraction of a second, at least 40 times faster than their growth factor opponent.1 Mechanical signals are so fast, Wang adds, they are “beyond our resolution,” meaning that current imaging techniques cannot capture the very first cellular changes that result from mechanical stress, which occur within nanoseconds.

For centuries, scientists have scrutinized the molecular inner workings of the body, with little or no regard to the physical environment in which these biological reactions take place. But the growing realization that physical forces have a pervasive presence in physiology (operating in a variety of bodily systems in thebone, blood, kidney, and ear, for instance), and act with astonishing speed, has caused many to consider the possibility that mechanical signaling may be just as important as chemical communication in the life of a cell.

“Biologists have traditionally ignored the role of mechanics in biology,” says biomechanical engineer Mohammad Mofrad of the University of California, Berkley, “[but] biomechanics is becoming increasingly accepted, and people are recognizing its role in development, in disease, and in general cellular and tissue function.”

The wave within: Mechanical forces acting inside the cell

Once believed to be little more than sacks of chemically active goop, cells didn’t seem capable of transmitting physical forces into their depths, and researchers largely limited their search for molecules or structures that respond to physical forces, or mechanosensors, to the plasma membrane.

Mechanical signaling may be just as important as chemical communication in the life of a cell.

In the late 1990s, however, closer examination revealed that the cell’s interior is in fact a highly structured environment, composed of a network of filaments.2 Pull on one side of the cell, and these filaments will transmit the force all the way to other side, tugging on and bumping into a variety of cellular structures along the way—similar to how a boat’s wake sends a series of small waves lapping up on a distant and otherwise peaceful shoreline. Scientists are now realizing the potential of such intracellular jostling to induce molecular changes throughout the cell, and the search for mechanosensing molecules has escalated dramatically in scope, including, for example, several proteins of the nucleus.

It’s a search that will likely last a while, predicts cell biologist Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. “To try to find out what’s the mechanosensor is kind of crazy at this point,” he says. As scientists are now learning, “the whole cell is the mechanosensor.”

A key player, most agree, is the cytoskeleton, which is comprised of a variety of microfilaments, including rigid actin filaments and active myosin motors—the two principle components of muscle. Activation of the so-called nonmuscle myosins causes the cytoskeleton to contract, much like an arm muscle does when it lifts a heavy object.

The first intimation that the cytoskeleton could go beyond its established inner-cell duties (molecule transport and cell movement and division) came in 1997, when Ingber did the logical (in hindsight, at least) experiment of pulling on the cells to see what happened inside.2 Using a tiny glass micropipette coated in ligands, Ingber and his team gently probed the surface proteins known as integrins, which secure the cell to the extracellular matrix. When they quickly pulled the micropipette away, they saw an immediate cellular makeover: cytoskeletal elements turned 90 degrees, the nucleus distorted, and the nucleolus—a small, dense structure within the nucleus that functions primarily in ribosome assembly—aligned itself with the direction of the applied force.

“That kind of blew people away,” Ingber recalls. “It revealed that cells have incredible levels of structure not only in the cytoplasm but in the nucleus as well.”

Wang (once a postdoc in Ingber’s lab at the Harvard School of Public Health) and other collaborators combined a similar technique with fluorescent imaging technology to visualize how these forces were channeled within the cell’s interior. Upping the resolution and further refining these techniques, Wang began mapping these intracellular forces as they made their way through the cell. In 2005, the maps confirmed the physical connection between the cell-surface integrins and the nucleus, and showed that these external forces follow a nonrandom path dictated by the tension of the cytoskeletal elements.3

“Biomechanics is becoming increasingly accepted, and people are recognizing its role in development, in disease, and in general cellular and tissue function.”
–Mohammad Mofrad

The end point of these mechanical pathways is likely a mechanosensitive protein, which changes shape in response to the force, thereby exposing new binding areas or otherwise changing the protein’s function. In mitochondria, for example, mechanical forces may trigger the release of reactive oxygen species and activation of signaling molecules that contribute to inflammation and atherosclerosis.

Similarly, proteins on the nuclear membrane may pass mechanical signals into the nucleus by way of a specialized structure known as LINC (linker of nucleoskeleton and cytoskeleton), which physically links the actin cytoskeleton to proteins important in nuclear organization and gene function. To determine if mechanical forces directly affect gene expression, last year scientists began exploiting the increasingly popular fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) technology,1 in which energy emitted by one fluorescent molecule can stimulate another, resulting in a visible energy transfer that can track enzymatic activities in live cells. By combining FRET technology with the techniques that apply physical forces to specific cell membrane proteins, scientists can visualize entire mechanochemical transduction pathways, Wang says.

“The big issue right now in the field of mechanotransduction is whether the genes in the nucleus can be directly activated by forces applied to the cell surface,” Wang explains. While the physical maps of the cytoskeleton tentatively sketch out a path that supports this possibility, confirmatory data is lacking. This combination of new technologies will be “tremendously” helpful in answering that question, he says, and “push the field” towards a more complete understanding of how mechanical forces can influence cellular life.

An early start: Mechanical forces in development

In the world of developmental biology, the cytoskeleton’s role in biomechanics really comes into its own. As the embryo develops, the cells themselves are the force generators, and by contracting at critical times, the cytoskeleton can initiate many key developmental steps, from invagination and gastrulation to proliferation and differentiation, and overall cellular organization.

The idea that physical forces play a role in development is not a new one. In the early 20th century, back when Albert Einstein was first developing the molecular basis of viscosity and scientists were realizing molecules are distinct particles, biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Thompson of the University of Dundee in Scotland suggested that mechanical strain is a key player in morphogenesis. Now, nearly a century later, biologists are finally beginning to agree.

Because Thompson “couldn’t measure [the forces] at that time, that kind of thinking got pushed to the wayside as genetic thinking took over biology,” says bioengineer Christopher Chen of the University of Pennsylvania. That is, until 2003, when Emmanuel Farge of the Curie Institute in France squeezedDrosophila embryos to mimic the compression experienced during early development and activated twist—a critical gene in the formation of the digestive tract.4 These results gave weight to Thompson’s idea that stress in the embryo stimulates development and growth, and inspired developmental scientists to begin considering mechanical effects, Chen says. “Now we’re at the stage where there’s a lot of interest and willingness to consider the fact that mechanical forces are not only shaping the embryo, but are linked to the differentiation programs that are going on.”

Again, the cytoskeleton is a key player in this process. In fruit flies and frogs, for example, nonmuscle myosins contract the actin filaments to generate the compressive forces necessary for successful gastrulation—the first major shape-changing event of development. Myosins similarly influence proliferation in the development of the Drosophila egg chamber, with increased myosin activity resulting in increased cell division.

Cytoskeleton contractility also appears to direct stem cell differentiation. In 2006, Dennis Discher of the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that the tension of the substrate on which cells are grown in culture is important for determining what type of tissue the cells will form.5 Cells grown on soft matrices that mimic brain tissue tended to grow into neural cells, while cells grown on stiffer matrices grew into muscle cell precursors, and hard matrices yielded bone. In this case, it seems that stiffer substrates increased the expression of nonmuscle myosin, generating greater tension in the actin cytoskeleton and affecting differentiation. (Altering or inhibiting myosin contraction can also affect differentiation.)

“To try to find out what’s the mechanosensor is kind of crazy at this point. As scientists are now learning, the whole cell is the mechanosensor.”
–Donald Ingber
Shaping a tumor

In addition to the influence of physical forces on cancer growth and invasion, forces can alter a tumor’s mechanical properties, and vice versa. Tumors are more rigid, or stiffer, than surrounding tissues, usually because they contain excess collagen in the ECM,5 and this can contain and amplify local forces produced by proliferating cancer cells. On the other hand, tumor rigidity can be further enhanced if the cells exert tension on ECM collagen fibers by pulling on them, or by stretching them, as occurs when tumors grow uncontrollably. Fluid forces can also influence the assembly of collagen fibers within and around tumors,8potentially increasing stiffness.

Importantly, tumor stiffness tends to be associated with poor prognoses, though the reasons for this are not fully understood. Cells are known to differentiate into different lineages depending on the local rigidity;16 for example, stem cells differentiate into bone on stiff substrates, but make adipose (fat) cells on softer substrates. Similar mechanisms are thought to affect tumor progression when the ECM changes rigidity, inducing cancer cells to become more invasive as well as more likely to metastasize. Indeed, longer collagen fibers in the matrix are associated with increased invasion and metastasis, as well as reduced survival, in mice.17

In addition, the abnormal ECM in tumors can affect cancer progression by activating normal stromal cells, such as macrophages and fibroblasts, that accelerate tumor growth and treatment resistance. These activated stromal cells further strengthen and stretch the ECM, causing a snowball effect.

The biochemical composition and organization of the ECM also influences tumor biology. Dysregulation of normal matrix signals can lead to tumor progression, characterized by excessive cell proliferation, immortality, enhanced migration, changes in metabolism, and evasion of the immune response. More research is needed to dissect the relationships between the ECM’s mechanical properties, forces, and cell signaling pathways.

Targeting the ECM

Because unchecked proliferation of cancer cells increases solid stress in the tumor, anticancer therapies should decrease the compressive forces in tumors and reopen collapsed blood and lymphatic vessels.11 This is exactly what happens when tumors are treated with certain doses of paclitaxel or docetaxel, two widely used cancer drugs. Shrinking tumors increases blood flow and allows more efficient fluid movement through the extravascular space, lowering the tumor interstitial fluid pressure in mouse models and in patients with breast cancer.5 However, cancer cells invariably develop resistance to treatment and begin to regrow, increasing solid stress again. As a result, other targets for reducing solid stresses are needed.

Because of its role in containing and concentrating the forces in a tumor, the collagen matrix within and around the tumor is another potential target for relieving tumor-related stresses. Indeed, solid stress in tumors can be reduced by drugs that selectively reprogram activated fibroblasts or modify the assembly of matrix components such as collagen and hyaluronan. In rodent studies, targeting these force-altering components in the tumor microenvironment has been shown to decrease solid stress, improve blood perfusion and drug delivery, and improve tumor response to chemotherapy and animal survival.6 We have found, for example, that injecting tumors with a collagen-digesting enzyme increases the diffusion of antibodies and viral particles and improves drug penetration in the tumor. Similarly, treatments that target transforming growth factor–beta (TGF-β), which controls the production of collagen by myofibroblasts, increase perfusion, improve the delivery of drugs of all sizes in mammary tumors, and improve treatment outcomes in mice.5

A class of drugs that is widely used to control blood pressure in hypertensive patients also blocks the TGF-β pathway. These drugs, known as angiotensin receptor 1 blockers, can reduce collagen production in and around the tumor by reducing the activity of TGF-β, as well as by blocking the function of connective tissue growth factor (CTGF), which is involved in stabilizing collagen and inducing resistance to chemotherapy.6Losartan and other angiotensin inhibitors reduce levels of collagen in various experimental models of fibrosis, and decrease renal and cardiac fibrosis in hypertensive patients. When given to mice with one of four different types of tumors characterized by high levels of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and excess extracellular matrix—pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, breast cancer, sarcoma, and melanoma—losartan treatment caused a decrease in collagen content in a dose-dependent manner, enhanced penetration of nanoparticles into the tumor, and improved efficacy of diverse anticancer drugs. This is supported by a number of retrospective studies in patients with pancreatic, lung, and kidney cancers.6Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are now running a Phase 1/2 clinical trial to test losartan in pancreatic cancer patients.

THE TUMOR ENVIRONMENT: The extracellular matrix and stromal cells within a tumor’s microenvironment influence the physical forces a tumor experiences. Left: The immunofluorescent image shows stromal cells (red and green) surrounding tumor cells (red cluster with blue nuclei); the cells were isolated from a mouse model of lung adenocarcinoma. Right: In this immunofluorescent image of triple-negative breast cancer, tumor cells (blue) are in close contact with matrix collagen (purple). Immune cells are labeled in red and green.VASILENA GOCHEVA, JACKS LAB, KOCH INSTITUTE AT MIT; DONGMEI ZUO, LABORATORY DR. MORAG PARK

Another potential cancer treatment target is hyaluronan, which is abundant in 20 percent to 30 percent of human tumors, most notably breast, colon, and prostate cancers. In addition to its role as a pressure-creating gel, hyaluronan can sequester growth factors and inhibit interstitial fluid movement within the tumor. Hyaluronidase, an enzyme that digests hyaluronan, reduces mechanical stress in tumors grown in mice.1 And San Diego–based Halozyme Therapeutics’s PEGPH20, a formulation of hyaluronidase coated with polyethylene glycol to enhance bioavailability, can decompress blood vessels and improve treatment outcome in genetically engineered mouse models of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Based on these studies, Halozyme researchers are now testing PEGPH20 in a randomized clinical trial of pancreatic cancer patients. Another matrix-altering drug is the widely-prescribed antidiabetic drug metformin, which has been shown to decrease collagen and hyaluronan levels in pancreatic tumors in obese mice and patients.7 Metformin is currently being tested in more than 200 clinical trials worldwide as a treatment for different types of cancer.

Clearly, tumors should be studied not only in light of their biochemical processes and genetic underpinnings, but also for the specific physical forces and mechanical properties that may influence progression. Understanding the physical microenvironment of tumors, as well as its interplay with the biochemical environment, is necessary to improve cancer detection, prevention, and treatment.

  1. T. Stylianopoulos et al., “Causes, consequences, and remedies for growth-induced solid stress in murine and human tumors,” PNAS, 109:15101-08, 2012.
  2. R.K. Jain, L.T. Baxter, “Mechanisms of heterogeneous distribution of monoclonal antibodies and other macromolecules in tumors: Significance of elevated interstitial pressure,” Cancer Res, 48:7022-32, 1988.
  3. R.K. Jain, “Normalization of tumor vasculature: An emerging concept in antiangiogenic therapy,”Science, 307:58-62, 2005.
  4. R.K. Jain, “Antiangiogenesis strategies revisited: From starving tumors to alleviating hypoxia,”Cancer Cell, 26:605-22, 2014.
  5. R.K. Jain et al., “The role of mechanical forces in tumor growth and therapy,” Annu Rev Biomed Eng, 16:321-46, 2014.
  6. V.P. Chauhan et al., “Angiotensin inhibition enhances drug delivery and potentiates chemotherapy by decompressing tumour blood vessels,” Nat Commun, 4:2516, 2013.
  7. J. Incio et al., “Metformin reduces desmoplasia in pancreatic cancer by reprogramming stellate cells and tumor-associated macrophages,” PLOS ONE, 10:e0141392, 2015.
  8. M.A. Swartz, A.W. Lund, “Lymphatic and interstitial flow in the tumour microenvironment: linking mechanobiology with immunity,” Nat Rev Cancer, 12:210-19, 2012.
  9. H. Qazi et al., “Cancer cell glycocalyx mediates mechanotransduction and flow-regulated invasion,”Integr Biol, 5:1334-43, 2013.
  10. J.W. Song, L.L. Munn, “Fluid forces control endothelial sprouting,” PNAS, 108:15342-47, 2011.

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Hybrid lipid bioelectronic membranes

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Hybrid solid-state chips and biological cells integrated at molecular level

Biological ion channels combine with solid-state transistors to create a new kind of hybrid bioelectronics. Imagine chips with dog-like capability to taste and smell, or even recognize specific molecules.
Illustration depicting a biocell attached to a CMOS integrated circuit with a membrane containing sodium-potassium pumps in pores. Energy is stored chemically in ATP molecules. When the energy is released as charged ions (which are then converted to electrons to power the chip at the bottom of the experimental device), the ATP is converted to ADP + inorganic phosphate. (credit: Trevor Finney and Jared Roseman/Columbia Engineering)

Columbia Engineering researchers have combined biological and solid-state components for the first time, opening the door to creating entirely new artificial biosystems.

In this experiment, they used a biological cell to power a conventional solid-state complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuit. An artificial lipid bilayer membrane containing adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-powered ion pumps (which provide energy for cells) was used as a source of ions (which were converted to electrons to power the chip).

The study, led by Ken Shepard, Lau Family Professor of Electrical Engineering and professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering, was published online today (Dec. 7, 2015) in an open-access paper in Nature Communications.

How to build a hybrid biochip

Living systems achieve this functionality with their own version of electronics based on lipid membranes and ion channels and pumps, which act as a kind of “biological transistor.” Charge in the form of ions carry energy and information, and ion channels control the flow of ions across cell membranes.

Solid-state systems, such as those in computers and communication devices, use electrons; their electronic signaling and power are controlled by field-effect transistors.

To build a prototype of their hybrid system, Shepard’s team packaged a CMOS integrated circuit (IC) with an ATP-harvesting “biocell.” In the presence of ATP, the system pumped ions across the membrane, producing an electrical potential (voltage)* that was harvested by the integrated circuit.

“We made a macroscale version of this system, at the scale of several millimeters, to see if it worked,” Shepard notes. “Our results provide new insight into a generalized circuit model, enabling us to determine the conditions to maximize the efficiency of harnessing chemical energy through the action of these ion pumps. We will now be looking at how to scale the system down.”

While other groups have harvested energy from living systems, Shepard and his team are exploring how to do this at the molecular level, isolating just the desired function and interfacing this with electronics. “We don’t need the whole cell,” he explains. “We just grab the component of the cell that’s doing what we want. For this project, we isolated the ATPases because they were the proteins that allowed us to extract energy from ATP.”

The capability of a bomb-sniffing dog, no Alpo required

Next, the researchers plan to go much further, such as recognizing specific molecules and giving chips the potential to taste and smell.

The ability to build a system that combines the power of solid-state electronics with the capabilities of biological components has great promise, they believe. “You need a bomb-sniffing dog now, but if you can take just the part of the dog that is useful — the molecules that are doing the sensing — we wouldn’t need the whole animal,” says Shepard.

The technology could also provide a power source for implanted electronic devices in ATP-rich environments such as inside living cells, the researchers suggest.

*  “In general, integrated circuits, even when operated at the point of minimum energy in subthreshold, consume on the order of 10−2 W mm−2 (or assuming a typical silicon chip thickness of 250 μm, 4 × 10−2 W mm−3). Typical cells, in contrast, consume on the order of 4 × 10−6 W mm−3. In the experiment, a typical active power dissipation for the IC circuit was 92.3 nW, and the active average harvesting power was 71.4 fW for the biocell (the discrepancy is managed through duty-cycled operation of the IC).” — Jared M. Roseman et al./Nature Communications


Hybrid integrated biological–solid-state system powered with adenosine triphosphate

Jared M. RosemanJianxun LinSiddharth RamakrishnanJacob K. Rosenstein & Kenneth L. Shepard
Nature Communications 7 Dec 2015; 6(10070)

There is enormous potential in combining the capabilities of the biological and the solid state to create hybrid engineered systems. While there have been recent efforts to harness power from naturally occurring potentials in living systems in plants and animals to power complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor integrated circuits, here we report the first successful effort to isolate the energetics of an electrogenic ion pump in an engineered in vitro environment to power such an artificial system. An integrated circuit is powered by adenosine triphosphate through the action of Na+/K+ adenosine triphosphatases in an integrated in vitro lipid bilayer membrane. The ion pumps (active in the membrane at numbers exceeding 2 × 106mm−2) are able to sustain a short-circuit current of 32.6pAmm−2 and an open-circuit voltage of 78mV, providing for a maximum power transfer of 1.27pWmm−2 from a single bilayer. Two series-stacked bilayers provide a voltage sufficient to operate an integrated circuit with a conversion efficiency of chemical to electrical energy of 14.9%.


Figure 1: Fully hybrid biological–solid-state system.



Fully hybrid biological-solid-state system.

(a) Illustration depicting biocell attached to CMOS integrated circuit. (b) Illustration of membrane in pore containing sodium–potassium pumps. (c) Circuit model of equivalent stacked membranes, =2.1pA, =98.6G, =575G and =75pF, Ag/AgCl electrode equivalent resistance RWE+RCE<20k, energy-harvesting capacitor CSTOR=100nF combined with switch as an impedance transformation network (only one switch necessary due to small duty cycle), and CMOS IC voltage doubler and resistor representing digital switching load. RL represents the four independent ring oscillator loads. (d) Equivalent circuit detail of stacked biocell. (e) Switched-capacitor voltage doubler circuit schematic.


The energetics of living systems are based on electrochemical membrane potentials that are present in cell plasma membranes, the inner membrane of mitochondria, or the thylakoid membrane of chloroplasts1. In the latter two cases, the specific membrane potential is known as the proton-motive force and is used by proton adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthases to produce ATP. In the former case, Na+/K+-ATPases hydrolyse ATP to maintain the resting potential in most cells.

While there have been recent efforts to harness power from some naturally occurring potentials in living systems that are the result of ion pump action both in plants2 and animals3, 4 to power complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuits (ICs), this work is the first successful effort to isolate the energetics of an electrogenic ion pump in an engineered in vitroenvironment to power such an artificial system. Prior efforts to harness power from in vitromembrane systems incorporating ion-pumping ATPases5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and light-activated bacteriorhodopsin9, 10, 11 have been limited by difficulty in incorporating these proteins in sufficient quantity to attain measurable current and in achieving sufficiently large membrane resistances to harness these currents. Both problems are solved in this effort to power an IC from ATP in an in vitro environment. The resulting measurements provide new insight into a generalized circuit model, which allows us to determine the conditions to maximize the efficiency of harnessing chemical energy through the action of electrogenic ion pumps.


ATP-powered IC

Figure 1a shows the complete hybrid integrated system, consisting of a CMOS IC packaged with an ATP-harvesting ‘biocell’. The biocell consists of two series-stacked ATPase bearing suspended lipid bilayers with a fluid chamber directly on top of the IC. Series stacking of two membranes is necessary to provide the required start-up voltage for IC and eliminates the need for an external energy source, which is typically required to start circuits from low-voltage supplies2, 3. As shown inFig. 1c, a matching network in the form of a switched capacitor allows the load resistance of the IC to be matched to that presented by the biocell. In principle, the switch S can be implicit. The biocell charges CSTOR until the self start-up voltage, Vstart, is reached. The chip then operates until the biocell voltage drops below the minimum supply voltage for operation, Vmin. Active current draw from the IC stops at this point, allowing the charge to build up again on CSTOR. In our case, however, the IC leakage current exceeds 13.5nA at Vstart, more than can be provided by the biocell. As a result, an explicit transistor switch and comparator (outside of the IC) are used for this function in the experimental results presented here, which are not powered by the biocell and not included in energy efficiency calculations (see Supplementary Discussion for additional details). The energy from the biocell is used to operate a voltage converter (voltage doubler) and some simple inverter-based ring oscillators in the IC, which receive power from no other sources.

Figure 1: Fully hybrid biological–solid-state system.


……..   Prior to the addition of ATP, the membrane produces no electrical power and has an Rm of 280G. A 1.7-pA short-circuit (SC) current (Fig. 2b) through the membrane is observed upon the addition of ATP (final concentration 3mM) to the cis chamber where functional, properly oriented enzymes generate a net electrogenic pump current. To perform these measurements, currents through each membrane of the biocell are measured using a voltage-clamp amplifier (inset of Fig. 2b) with a gain of 500G with special efforts taken to compensate amplifier leakage currents. Each ATPase transports three Na+ ions from the cis chamber to the trans chamber and two K+ ions from thetrans chamber to the cis chamber (a net charge movement of one cation) for every molecule of ATP hydrolysed. At a rate of 100 hydrolysis events per second under zero electrical (SC) bias13, this results in an electrogenic current of ~16aA. The observed SC current corresponds to about 105 active ATPases in the membrane or a concentration of about 2 × 106mm−2, about 5% of the density of channels occurring naturally in mammalian nerve fibres14. It is expected that half of the channels inserted are inactive because they are oriented incorrectly.

Figure 2: Single-cell biocell characterization.

(a)…Pre-ATP data linear fit (black line) slope yield Rm=280G. Post ATP data fit to a Boltzmann curve, slope=0.02V (blue line). Post-ATP linear fit (red line) yields Ip=−1.8pA and Rp=61.6G, which corresponds to a per-ATP source resistance of 6.16 × 1015. The current due to membrane leakage through R_{m} is subtracted in the post-ATP curve…. (b)…


Current–voltage characteristics of the ATPases

Figure 2a shows the complete measured current–voltage (IV) characteristic of a single ATPase-bearing membrane in the presence of ATP. The current due to membrane leakage through Rm is subtracted in the post-ATP curve. The IV characteristic fits a Boltzmann sigmoid curve, consistent with sodium–potassium pump currents measured on membrane patches at similar buffer conditions13, 15, 16. This nonlinear behaviour reflects the fact that the full ATPase transport cycle (three Na+ ions from cis to trans and two K+ ions from trans to cis) time increases (the turn-over rate, kATP, decreases) as the membrane potential increases16. No effect on pump current is expected from any ion concentration gradients produced by the action of the ATPases (seeSupplementary Discussion). Using this Boltzmann fit, we can model the biocell as a nonlinear voltage-controlled current source IATPase (inset Fig. 2a), in which the current produced by this source varies as a function of Vm. In the fourth quadrant, where the cell is producing electrical power, this model can be linearized as a Norton equivalent circuit, consisting of a DC current source (Ip) in parallel with a current-limiting resistor (Rp), which acts to limit the current delivered to the load at increasing bias (IATPase~IpVm/Rp). Figure 2c shows the measured and simulated charging of Cm for a single membrane (open-circuited voltage). A custom amplifier with input resistance Rin>10T was required for this measurement (see Electrical Measurement Methods).


Reconciling operating voltage differences

The electrical characteristics of biological systems and solid-state systems are mismatched in their operating voltages. The minimum operating voltage of solid-state systems is determined by the need for transistors to modulate a Maxwell–Boltzmann (MB) distribution of carriers by several orders of magnitude through the application of a potential that is several multiples of kT/q (where kis Boltzmann’s constant, T is the temperature in degrees Kelvin and q is the elementary charge). Biological systems, while operating under the same MB statistics, have no such constraints for operating ion channels since they are controlled by mechanical (or other conformational) processes rather than through modulation of a potential barrier. To bridge this operating voltage mismatch, the circuit includes a switched-capacitor voltage doubler (Fig. 1d) that is capable of self-startup from voltages as low Vstart=145mV (~5.5kT/q) and can be operated continuously from input voltages from as low as Vmin=110mV (see Supplementary Discussion)…..


Maximizing the efficiency of harvesting energy from ATP

Solid-state systems and biological systems are also mismatched in their operating impedances. In our case, the biocell presents a source impedance, =84.2G, while the load impedance presented by the complete integrated circuit (including both the voltage converter and ring oscillator loads) is approximately RIC=200k. (The load impedance, RL, of the ring oscillators alone is 305k.) This mismatch in source and load impedance is manifest in large differences in power densities. In general, integrated circuits, even when operated at the point of minimum energy in subthreshold, consume on the order of 10−2Wmm−2 (or assuming a typical silicon chip thickness of 250μm, 4 × 10−2Wmm−3) (ref. 17). Typical cells, in contrast, consume on the order of 4 × 10−6Wmm−3 (ref. 18). In our case, a typical active power dissipation for our circuit is 92.3nW, and the active average harvesting power is 71.4fW for the biocell. This discrepancy is managed through duty-cycled operation of the IC in which the circuit is largely disabled for long periods of time (Tcharge), integrating up the power onto a storage capacitor (CSTOR), which is then expended in a very brief period of activity (Trun), as shown in Fig. 3a.

The overall efficiency of the system in converting chemical energy to the energy consumed in the load ring oscillator (η) is given by the product of the conversion efficiency of the voltage doubler (ηconverter) and the conversion efficiency of chemical energy to electrical energy in the biocell (ηbiocell), η=ηconverter × ηbiocell. ηconverter is relatively constant over the range of input voltages at ~59%, as determined by various loading test circuits included in the chip design (Supplementary Figs 1–6). ηbiocell, however, varies with transmembrane potential Vm. η is the efficiency in transferring power to the power ring oscillator loads from the ATP harvested by biocell.


To first order, the energy made available to the Na+/K+-ATPase by the hydrolysis of ATP is independent of the chemical or electric potential of the membrane and is given by |ΔGATP|/(qNA), where ΔGATP is the Gibbs free energy change due to the ATP hydrolysis reaction per mole of ATP at given buffer conditions and NA is Avogadro’s number. Since every charge that passes through IATPase corresponds to a single hydrolysis event, we can use two voltage sources in series with IATPase to independently account for the energy expended by the pumps both in moving charge across the electric potential difference and in moving ions across the chemical potential difference. The dependent voltage source Vloss in this branch fixes the voltage across IATPase, and the total power produced by the pump current source is (|ΔGATP|/NA)(NkATP), which is the product of the energy released per molecule of ATP, the number of active ATPases and the ATP turnover rate. The power dissipated in voltage source Vchem models the work performed by the ATPases in transporting ions against a concentration gradient. In the case of the Na+/K+ ATPase,Vchem is given by . The power dissipated in this source is introduced back into the circuit in the power generated by the Nernst independent voltage sources, and . The power dissipated in the dependent voltage source Vloss models any additional power not used to perform chemical or electrical work. ……


Integration of ATP-harvesting ion pumps could provide a means to power future CMOS microsystems scaled to the level of individual cells22. In molecular diagnostics, the integration of pore-forming proteins such as alpha haemolysin23 or MspA porin24 with CMOS electronics is already finding application in DNA sequencing25. Exploiting the large diversity of function available in transmembrane proteins in these hybrid systems could, for example, lead to highly specific sensing platforms for airborne odorants or soluble molecular entities26, 27. Heavily multiplexed platforms could become high-throughput in vitro drug-screening platforms against this diversity of function. In addition, integration of transmembrane proteins with CMOS may become a convenient alternative to fluorescence for coupling to synthetic biological systems28.


Roseman, J. M. et al. Hybrid integrated biological–solid-state system powered with adenosine triphosphate. Nat. Commun. 6:10070 (2015).



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  • Himes, C., Carlson, E., Ricchiuti, R. J., Otis, B. P. & Parviz, B. A. Ultralow voltage nanoelectronics powered directly, and solely, from a tree. IEEE Trans. Nanotechnol. 9, 25(2010).
  • Mercier, P. P., Lysaght, A. C., Bandyopadhyay, S., Chandrakasan, A. P. & Stankovic, K. M.Energy extraction from the biologic battery in the inner ear. Nat. Biotechnol. 30, 12401243(2012).
  • Halámková, L. et al. Implanted Biofuel Cell Operating in a Living Snail. J. Am. Chem. Soc.134, 50405043 (2012).



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brown adipocyte protein CIDEA promotes lipid droplet fusion

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator





The brown adipocyte protein CIDEA promotes lipid droplet fusion via a phosphatidic acid-binding

Parker, Nicholas T Ktistakis, Ann M Dixon, Judith Klein-Seetharaman, Susan Henry, Mark Christian Dirk Dormann, Gil-Soo Han, Stephen A Jesch, George M Carman, Valerian Kagan, et al.

eLife 2015;10.7554/eLife.07485


Maintenance of energy homeostasis depends on the highly regulated storage and release of triacylglycerol primarily in adipose tissue and excessive storage is a feature of common metabolic disorders. CIDEA is a lipid droplet (LD)-protein enriched in brown adipocytes promoting the enlargement of LDs which are dynamic, ubiquitous organelles specialized for storing neutral lipids. We demonstrate an essential role in this process for an amphipathic helix in CIDEA, which facilitates embedding in the LD phospholipid monolayer and binds phosphatidic acid (PA). LD pairs are docked by CIDEA trans-complexes through contributions of the N-terminal domain and a C-terminal dimerization region. These complexes, enriched at the LD-LD contact site, interact with the cone-shaped phospholipid PA and likely increase phospholipid barrier permeability, promoting LD fusion by transference of lipids. This physiological process is essential in adipocyte differentiation as well as serving to facilitate the tight coupling of lipolysis and lipogenesis in activated brown fat.


Evolutionary pressures for survival in fluctuating environments that expose organisms to times of both feast and famine have selected for the ability to efficiently store and release energy in the form of triacyclglycerol (TAG). However, excessive or defective lipid storage is a key feature of common diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis and the metabolic syndrome (1). The organelles that are essential for storing and mobilizing intracellular fat are lipid droplets (LDs) (2). They constitute a unique cellular structure where a core of neutral lipids is stabilized in the hydrophilic cytosol by a phospholipid monolayer embedding LD-proteins. While most mammalian 46 cells present small LDs (<1 Pm) (3), white (unilocular) adipocytes contain a single giant LD occupying most of their cell volume. In contrast, brown (multilocular) adipocytes hold multiple LDs of lesser size, increasing the LD surface/volume ratio which facilitates the rapid consumption of lipids for adaptive thermogenesis (4).

The exploration of new approaches for the treatment of metabolic disorders has been stimulated by the rediscovery of active brown adipose tissue (BAT) in adult humans (5, 6) and by the induction of multilocular brown-like cells in white adipose tissue (WAT) (7). The multilocular morphology of brown adipocytes is a defining characteristic of these cells along with expression of genes such as Ucp1. The acquisition of a unilocular or multilocular phenotype is likely to be controlled by the regulation of LD growth. Two related proteins, CIDEA and CIDEC promote LD enlargement in adipocytes (8-10), with CIDEA being specifically found in BAT. Together with CIDEB, they form the CIDE (cell death-inducing DFF45-like effector) family of LD-proteins, which have emerged as important metabolic regulators (11).

Different mechanisms have been proposed for LD enlargement, including in situ neutral lipid synthesis, lipid uptake and LD-LD coalescence (12-14). The study of CIDE 62 proteins has revealed a critical role in the LD fusion process in which a donor LD progressively transfers its content to an acceptor LD until it is completely absorbed (15). However, the underlying mechanism by which CIDEC and CIDEA facilitate the interchange of triacylglycerol (TAG) molecules between LDs is not understood. In the present study, we have obtained a detailed picture of the different steps driving this LD enlargement process, which involves the stabilization of LD pairs, phospholipid binding, and the permeabilization of the LD monolayer to allow the transference of lipids.


CIDEA expression mimics the LD dynamics observed during the differentiation of brown adipocytes

Phases of CIDEA activity: LD targeting, LD-LD docking and LD growth

A cationic amphipathic helix in C-term drives LD targeting

The amphipathic helix is essential for LD enlargement

LD-LD docking is induced by the formation of CIDEA complexes

CIDEC differs from CIDEA in its dependence on the N-term domain

CIDEA interacts with Phosphatidic Acid

PA is required for LD enlargement


The Cidea gene is highly expressed in BAT, induced in WAT following cold exposure (46), and is widely used by researchers as a defining marker to discriminate brown or brite adipocytes from white adipocytes (7, 28). As evidence indicated a key role in the LD biology (47) we have characterized the mechanism by which CIDEA promotes LD enlargement, which involves the targeting of LDs, the docking of LD pairs and the transference of lipids between them. The lipid transfer step requires the interaction of CIDEA and PA through a cationic amphipathic helix. Independently of PA-binding, this helix is also responsible for anchoring CIDEA in the LD membrane. Finally, we demonstrate that the docking of LD pairs is driven by the formation of CIDEA complexes involving the N-term domain and a C-term interaction site.

CIDE proteins appeared during vertebrate evolution by the combination of an ancestor N-term domain and a LD-binding C-term domain (35). In spite of this, the full process of LD enlargement can be induced in yeast by the sole exogenous expression of 395 CIDEA, indicating that in contrast to SNARE-triggered vesicle fusion, LD fusion by lipid transference does not require the coordination of multiple specific proteins (48). Whereas vesicle fusion implicates an intricate restructuring of the phospholipid bilayers, LD fusion is a spontaneous process that the cell has to prevent by tightly controlling their phospholipid composition (23). However, although phospholipid-modifying enzymes have been linked with the biogenesis of LDs (49, 50), the implication of phospholipids in physiologic LD fusion processes has not been previously described.

Complete LD fusion by lipid transfer can last several hours, during which the participating LDs remain in contact. Our results indicate that both the N-term domain and a C-term dimerization site (aa 126-155) independently participate in the docking of LD pairs by forming trans interactions (Fig. 7). Certain mutations in the dimerization sites that do not eliminate the interaction result in a decrease on the TAG transference efficiency, reflected on the presence of small LDs docked to enlarged LDs. This suggests that in addition to stabilizing the LD-LD interaction, the correct conformation of the 409 CIDEA complexes is necessary for optimal TAG transfer. Furthermore, the formation of stable LD pairs is not sufficient to trigger LD fusion by lipid transfer. In fact, although LDs can be tightly packed in cultured adipocytes, no TAG transference across neighbour LDs is observed in the absence of CIDE proteins (15), showing that the phospholipid monolayer acts as a barrier impermeable to TAG. Our CG-MD simulations indicate that certain TAG molecules can escape the neutral lipid core of the LD and be integrated within the aliphatic chains of the phospholipid monolayer. This could be a transition state 416 prior to the TAG transference and our data indicates that the docking of the amphipathic helix in the LD membrane could facilitate this process. However, the infiltrated TAGs in LD membranes in the presence of mutant helices, or even in the absence of docking, suggests that this is not enough to complete the TAG transference.

To be transferred to the adjacent LD, the TAGs integrated in the hydrophobic region of the LD membrane should cross the energy barrier defined by the phospholipid polar heads, and the interaction of CIDEA with PA could play a role in this process, as suggested by the disruption of LD enlargement by the mutations preventing PA-binding (K167E/R171E/R175E) and the inhibition of CIDEA after PA depletion. The minor effects observed with more conservative substitutions in the helix, suggests that the presence of positive charges is sufficient to induce TAG transference by attracting anionic phospholipids present in the LD membrane. PA, which requirement is indicated by our PA-depletion experiments, is a cone-shaped anionic phospholipid which could locally destabilize the LD monolayer by favoring a negative membrane curvature incompatible with the spherical LD morphology (51). Interestingly, while the zwitterion PC, the main component of the monolayer, stabilizes the LD structure (23), the negatively charged PA promote their coalescence (29). This is supported by our CD-MD results which resulted in a deformation of the LD shape by the addition of PA. We propose a model in which the C-term amphipathic helix positions itself in the LD monolayer and interacts with PA molecules in its vicinity, which might include trans interactions with PA in the adjacent LD. The interaction with PA disturbs the integrity of the phospholipid barrier at the LD-LD interface, allowing the LD to LD transference of TAG molecules integrated in the LD membrane (Fig. 7). Additional alterations in the LD composition could be facilitating TAG transference, as differentiating adipocytes experience a reduction in saturated fatty acids in the LD phospholipids (52), and in their PC/PE ratio (53) which could increase the permeability of the LD membranes, and we previously observed that a change in the molecular structures of TAG results in an altered migration pattern to the LD surface (32).

During LD fusion by lipid transfer, the pressure gradient experienced by LDs favors TAG flux from small to large LDs (15). However, the implication of PA, a minor component of the LD membrane, could represent a control mechanism, as it is plausible that the cell could actively influence the TAG flux direction by differently regulating the levels of PA in large and small LDs, which could be controlled by the activity of enzymes such as AGPAT3 and LIPIN-1J (13, 30). This is a remarkable possibility, as a switch in the favored TAG flux direction could promote the acquisition of a multilocular phenotype and facilitate the browning of WAT (24). Interestingly, Cidea mRNA is the LD protein- encoding transcript that experiences the greatest increase during the cold-induced process by which multilocular BAT-like cells appear in WAT (24). Furthermore, in BAT, cold exposure instigates a profound increase in CIDEA protein levels that is independent of transcriptional regulation (54). The profound increase in CIDEA is coincident with elevated lipolysis and de novo lipogenesis that occurs in both brown and white adipose tissues after E-adrenergic receptor activation (55). It is likely that CIDEA has a central role in coupling these processes to package newly synthesized TAG in LDs for subsequent lipolysis and fatty acid oxidation. Importantly, BAT displays high levels of glycerol kinase activity (56, 57) that facilitates glycerol recycling rather than release into the blood stream, following induction of lipolysis (58), which occurs in WAT. Hence, the reported elevated glycerol released from cells depleted of CIDEA (28) is likely to be a result of decoupling lipolysis from the ability to efficiently store the products of lipogenesis in LDs and therefore producing a net increase in detected extracellular glycerol. This important role of CIDEA is supported by the marked depletion of TAG in the BAT of Cidea null mice following overnight exposure to 4 °C (28) and our findings that CIDEA-dependent LD enlargement is maintained in a lipase negative yeast strain.

Cidea and the genes that are required to facilitate high rates of lipolysis and lipogenesis are associated with the “browning” of white fat either following cold exposure (46) or in genetic models such as RIP140 knockout WAT (59). The induction of a brown- like phenotype in WAT has potential benefits in the treatment and prevention of metabolic disorders (60). Differences in the activity and regulation of CIDEC and CIDEA could also be responsible for the adoption of unilocular or multilocular phenotypes. In addition to their differential interaction with PLIN1 and 5, we have observed that CIDEC is more resilient to the deletion of the N-term than CIDEA, indicating that it may be less sensitive to regulatory posttranslational modifications of this domain. This robustness of CIDEC activity together with its potentiation by PLIN1, could facilitate the continuity of the LD enlargement in white adipocytes until the unilocular phenotype is achieved. In contrast, in brown adipocytes expressing CIDEA the process would be stopped at the multilocular stage for example due to post-translational modifications that modulate the function or stability of the protein or alteration of the PA levels in LDs.

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