Posts Tagged ‘circulating DNA’

Live Conference Coverage @Medcitynews Converge 2018 Philadelphia:Liquid Biopsy and Gene Testing vs Reimbursement Hurdles

9:25- 10:15 Liquid Biopsy and Gene Testing vs. Reimbursement Hurdles

Genetic testing, whether broad-scale or single gene-testing, is being ordered by an increasing number of oncologists, but in many cases, patients are left to pay for these expensive tests themselves. How can this dynamic be shifted? What can be learned from the success stories?

Moderator: Shoshannah Roth, Assistant Director of Health Technology Assessment and Information Services , ECRI Institute @Ecri_Institute
Rob Dumanois, Manager – reimbursement strategy, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Eugean Jiwanmall, Senior Research Analyst for Medical Policy & Technology Evaluation , Independence Blue Cross @IBX
Michael Nall, President and Chief Executive Officer, Biocept


Michael: Wide range of liquid biopsy services out there.  There are screening companies however they are young and need lots of data to develop pan diagnostic test.  Most of liquid biopsy is more for predictive analysis… especially therapeutic monitoring.  Sometimes solid biopsies are impossible , limited, or not always reliable due to metastasis or tough to biopsy tissues like lung.

Eugean:  Circulating tumor cells and ctDNA is the only FDA approved liquid biopsies.  However you choose then to evaluate the liquid biopsy, PCR NGS, FISH etc, helps determines what the reimbursement options are available.

Rob:  Adoption of reimbursement for liquid biopsy is moving faster in Europe than the US.  It is possible in US that there may be changes to the payment in one to two years though.

Michael:  China is adopting liquid biopsy rapidly.  Patients are demanding this in China.


Eugean:  For IBX to make better decisions we need more clinical trials to correlate with treatment outcome.  Most of the major cancer networks, like NCCN, ASCO, CAP, just have recommendations and not approved guidelines at this point.  From his perspective with lung cancer NCCN just makes a suggestion with EGFR mutations however only the companion diagnostic is approved by FDA.

Michael:  Fine needle biopsies are usually needed by the pathologist anyway before they go to liquid biopsy as need to know the underlying mutations in the original tumor, it just is how it is done in most cancer centers.

Eugean:  Whatever the established way of doing things, you have to outperform the clinical results of the old method for adoption of a newer method.

Reimbursement issues have driven a need for more research into clinical validity and utility of predictive and therapeutic markers with regard to liquid biopsies.  However although many academic centers try to partner with Biocept Biocept has a limit of funds and must concentrate only on a few trials.  The different payers use different evidence based methods to evaluate liquid biopsy markers.  ECRI also has a database for LB markers using an evidence based criteria.  IBX does sees consistency among payers as far as decision and policy.

NGS in liquid biopsy

Rob: There is a path to coverage, especially through the FDA.  If you have a FDA cleared NGS test, it will be covered.  These are long and difficult paths to reimbursement for NGS but it is feasible. Medicare line of IBX covers this testing, however on the commercial side they can’t cover this.  @IBX: for colon only kras or nras has clinical utility and only a handful of other cancer related genes for other cancers.  For a companion diagnostic built into that Dx do the other markers in the panel cost too much?

Please follow on Twitter using the following #hash tags and @pharma_BI









And at the following handles:




Read Full Post »

Blood test uses DNA strands of dying cells

Curators:  Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP and Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN



Hadassah-Developed Blood Test Detects Multiple Sclerosis, Cancer & Brain Damage

A new blood test that uses the DNA strands of dying cells to detect diabetes, cancer, traumatic brain injury, and neurodegenerative disease has been developed by researchers at Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO) and The Hebrew University.

In a study involving 320 patients, the researchers were able to infer cell death in specific tissues by looking at the unique chemical modifications (called methylation patterns) of circulating DNA that these dying cells release. Previously, it had not been possible to measure cell death in specific human tissues non-invasively.

The findings are reported in the March 14, 2016 online edition of Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA, in an article entitled “Identification of tissue specific cell death using methylation patterns of circulating DNA.”  Prof. Benjamin Glaser, head of Endocrinology at Hadassah, and Dr. Ruth Shemer and Prof. Yuval Dor from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem led an international team in performing the groundbreaking research.

Cell death is a central feature in health and disease. It can signify the early stages of pathology (e.g. a developing tumor or the beginning of an autoimmune or neurodegenerative disease); it can illuminate whether a disease has progressed and whether a particular treatment, such as chemotherapy, is working; and it can alert physicians to unintended toxic effects of treatment or the early rejection of a transplant.

As the researchers relate: “The approach can be adapted to identify cfDNA (cell-free circulating DNA) derived from any cell type in the body, offering a minimally invasive window for diagnosing and monitoring a broad spectrum of human pathologies as well as providing a better understanding of normal tissue dynamics.”

“In the long run,” notes Prof. Glaser, “we envision a new type of blood test aimed at the sensitive detection of tissue damage, even without a-priori suspicion of disease in a specific organ. We believe that such a tool will have broad utility in diagnostic medicine and in the study of human biology.”

The research was performed by Hebrew University students Roni Lehmann-Werman, Daniel Neiman, Hai Zemmour, Joshua Moss and Judith Magenheim, aided by clinicians and scientists from Hadassah Medical Center, Sheba Medical Center, and from institutions in Germany, Sweden, the USA and Canada, who provided precious blood samples from patients.

Scientists have known for decades that dying cells release fragmented DNA into the blood; however, since the DNA sequence of all cells in the body is identical, it had not been possible to determine the tissue of origin of the circulating DNA.  Knowing that the DNA of each cell type carries a unique methylation and that methylation patterns of DNA account for the identity of cells, the researchers were able to use patterns of methylated DNA sequences as biomarkers to detect the origin of the DNA and to identify a specific pathology. For example, they were able to detect evidence of pancreatic beta-cell death in the blood of patients with new-onset type 1 diabetes, oligodendrocyte cell death in patients with relapsing multiple sclerosis, brain cell death in patients after traumatic or ischemic brain damage, and exocrine pancreatic tissue cell death in patients with pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.

Support for the research came from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Human Islet Research Network of the National Institutes of Health, the Sir Zalman Cowen Universities Fund, the DFG (a Trilateral German-Israel-Palestine program), and the Soyka pancreatic cancer fund.

 Identification of tissue-specific cell death using methylation patterns of circulating DNA.
Minimally invasive detection of cell death could prove an invaluable resource in many physiologic and pathologic situations. Cell-free circulating DNA (cfDNA) released from dying cells is emerging as a diagnostic tool for monitoring cancer dynamics and graft failure. However, existing methods rely on differences in DNA sequences in source tissues, so that cell death cannot be identified in tissues with a normal genome. We developed a method of detecting tissue-specific cell death in humans based on tissue-specific methylation patterns in cfDNA. We interrogated tissue-specific methylome databases to identify cell type-specific DNA methylation signatures and developed a method to detect these signatures in mixed DNA samples. We isolated cfDNA from plasma or serum of donors, treated the cfDNA with bisulfite, PCR-amplified the cfDNA, and sequenced it to quantify cfDNA carrying the methylation markers of the cell type of interest. Pancreatic β-cell DNA was identified in the circulation of patients with recently diagnosed type-1 diabetes and islet-graft recipients; oligodendrocyte DNA was identified in patients with relapsing multiple sclerosis; neuronal/glial DNA was identified in patients after traumatic brain injury or cardiac arrest; and exocrine pancreas DNA was identified in patients with pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis. This proof-of-concept study demonstrates that the tissue origins of cfDNA and thus the rate of death of specific cell types can be determined in humans. The approach can be adapted to identify cfDNA derived from any cell type in the body, offering a minimally invasive window for diagnosing and monitoring a broad spectrum of human pathologies as well as providing a better understanding of normal tissue dynamics.

While impressively organ specific, they did not specifically prove that the DNA was from an actual dying cell. For example, you would need to see if Troponin levels were elevated when assuming the DNA is from injured myocardium. Also, for brain, though impractical , you’d want to see a brain biopsy or imaging for the brain related cases. The experiment of spiking with DNA was clever though. Also, what is the turnaround time for this test in practical use?

Larry HB

Very good comment. I was reluctant to put this up, but it was of interest and published in PNAS.  Perhaps I can find more information.  Troponin levels would be good for 48 hours, longer than CK and comparable to LD.  What about Nat peptides?

Glutamine and cancer: cell biology, physiology, and clinical opportunities

Christopher T. Hensley,1 Ajla T. Wasti,1,2 

J Clin Invest 2013

Glutamine is an abundant and versatile nutrient that participates in energy formation, redox homeostasis, macromolecular synthesis, and signaling in cancer cells. These characteristics make glutamine metabolism an appealing target for new clinical strategies to detect, monitor, and treat cancer. Here we review the metabolic functions of glutamine as a super nutrient and the surprising roles of glutamine in supporting the biological hallmarks of malignancy. We also review recent efforts in imaging and therapeutics to exploit tumor cell glutamine dependence, discuss some of the challenges in this arena, and suggest a disease-focused paradigm to deploy these emerging approaches.

It has been nearly a century since the discovery that tumors display metabolic activities that distinguish them from differentiated, non-proliferating tissues and presumably contribute to their supraphysiological survival and growth (1). Interest in cancer metabolism was boosted by discoveries that oncogenes and tumor suppressors could regulate nutrient metabolism, and that mutations in some metabolic enzymes participate in the development of malignancy (2, 3). The persistent appeal of cancer metabolism as a line of investigation lies both in its ability to uncover fundamental aspects of malignancy and in the translational potential of exploiting cancer metabolism to improve the way we diagnose, monitor, and treat cancer. Furthermore, an improved understanding of how altered metabolism contributes to cancer has a high potential for synergy with translational efforts. For example, the demonstration that asparagine is a conditionally essential nutrient in rapidly growing cancer cells paved the way for L-asparaginase therapy in leukemia. Additionally, the avidity of some tumors for glucose uptake led to the development of 18fluoro-2-deoxyglucose imaging by PET; this in turn stimulated hundreds of studies on the biological underpinnings of tumor glucose metabolism.

There continue to be large gaps in understanding which metabolic pathways are altered in cancer, whether these alterations benefit the tumor in a substantive way, and how this information could be used in clinical oncology. In this Review, we consider glutamine, a highly versatile nutrient whose metabolism has implications for tumor cell biology, metabolic imaging, and perhaps novel therapeutics.

Glutamine in intermediary metabolism

Glutamine metabolism has been reviewed extensively and is briefly outlined here (4, 5). The importance of glutamine as a nutrient in cancer derives from its abilities to donate its nitrogen and carbon into an array of growth-promoting pathways (Figure 1). At concentrations of 0.6–0.9 mmol/l, glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in plasma (6). Although most tissues can synthesize glutamine, during periods of rapid growth or other stresses, demand outpaces supply, and glutamine becomes conditionally essential (7). This requirement for glutamine is particularly true in cancer cells, many of which display oncogene-dependent addictions to glutamine in culture (8). Glutamine catabolism begins with its conversion to glutamate in reactions that either donate the amide nitrogen to biosynthetic pathways or release it as ammonia. The latter reactions are catalyzed by the glutaminases (GLSs), of which several isozymes are encoded by human genes GLS and GLS2 (9). Classical studies revealed that GLS isozymes, particularly those encoded by GLS, are expressed in experimental tumors in rats and mice, where their enzyme activity correlates with growth rate and malignancy. Silencing GLS expression or inhibiting GLS activity is sufficient to delay tumor growth in a number of models (1013). The role of GLS2 in cancer appears to be context specific and regulated by factors that are still incompletely characterized. In some tissues, GLS2 is a p53 target gene and seems to function in tumor suppression (14). On the other hand, GLS2 expression is enhanced in some neuroblastomas, where it contributes to cell survival (15). These observations, coupled with the demonstration that c-Myc stimulates GLS expression (12, 16), position at least some of the GLS isozymes as pro-oncogenic.

Glutamine metabolism as a target for diagnostic imaging and therapy in cancFigure 1Glutamine metabolism as a target for diagnostic imaging and therapy in cancer. Glutamine is imported via SLC1A5 and other transporters, then enters a complex metabolic network by which its carbon and nitrogen are supplied to pathways that promote cell survival and growth. Enzymes discussed in the text are shown in green, and inhibitors that target various aspects of glutamine metabolism are shown in red. Green arrows denote reductive carboxylation. 18F-labeled analogs of glutamine are also under development as PET probes for localization of tumor tissue. AcCoA, acetyl-CoA; DON, 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine; GSH, glutathione; NEAA, nonessential amino acids; ME, malic enzyme; OAA, oxaloacetate; TA, transaminase; 968, compound 968; α-KG, α-ketoglutarate.

Glutamate, the product of the GLS reaction, is a precursor of glutathione, the major cellular antioxidant. It is also the source of amino groups for nonessential amino acids like alanine, aspartate, serine, and glycine, all of which are required for macromolecular synthesis. In glutamine-consuming cells, glutamate is also the major source of α-ketoglutarate, a TCA cycle intermediate and substrate for dioxygenases that modify proteins and DNA. These dioxygenases include prolyl hydroxylases, histone demethylases, and 5-methylcytosine hydroxylases. Their requirement for α-ketoglutarate, although likely accounting for only a small fraction of total α-ketoglutarate utilization, makes this metabolite an essential component of cell signaling and epigenetic networks.

Conversion of glutamate to α-ketoglutarate occurs either through oxidative deamination by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH) in the mitochondrion or by transamination to produce nonessential amino acids in either the cytosol or the mitochondrion. During avid glucose metabolism, the transamination pathway predominates (17). When glucose is scarce, GDH becomes a major pathway to supply glutamine carbon to the TCA cycle, and is required for cell survival (17, 18). Metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate in the TCA cycle serves several purposes: it generates reducing equivalents for the electron transport chain (ETC) and oxidative phosphorylation, becoming a major source of energy (19); and it is an important anaplerotic nutrient, feeding net production of oxaloacetate to offset export of intermediates from the cycle to supply anabolism (20). Glutamine oxidation also supports redox homeostasis by supplying carbon to malic enzyme, some isoforms of which produce NADPH (Figure 1). In KRAS-driven pancreatic adenocarcinoma cells, a pathway involving glutamine-dependent NADPH production is essential for redox balance and growth (21). In these cells, glutamine is used to produce aspartate in the mitochondria. This aspartate is then trafficked to the cytosol, where it is deaminated to produce oxaloacetate and then malate, the substrate for malic enzyme.

Recent work has uncovered an unexpected role for glutamine in cells with reduced mitochondrial function. Despite glutamine’s conventional role as a respiratory substrate, several studies demonstrated a persistence of glutamine dependence in cells with permanent mitochondrial dysfunction from mutations in the ETC or TCA cycle, or transient impairment secondary to hypoxia (2225). Under these conditions, glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate is reductively carboxylated by NADPH-dependent isoforms of isocitrate dehydrogenase to produce isocitrate, citrate, and other TCA cycle intermediates (Figure 1). These conditions broaden glutamine’s utility as a carbon source because it becomes not only a major source of oxaloacetate, but also generates acetyl-CoA in what amounts to a striking rewiring of TCA cycle metabolism.

Glutamine promotes hallmarks of malignancy

Deregulated energetics. One hallmark of cancer cells is aberrant bioenergetics (26). Glutamine’s involvement in the pathways outlined above contributes to a phenotype conducive to energy formation, survival, and growth. In addition to its role in mitochondrial metabolism, glutamine also suppresses expression of thioredoxin-interacting protein, a negative regulator of glucose uptake (27). Thus, glutamine contributes to both of the energy-forming pathways in cancer cells: oxidative phosphorylation and glycolysis. Glutamine also modulates hallmarks not traditionally thought to be metabolic, as outlined below. These interactions highlight the complex interplay between glutamine metabolism and many aspects of cell biology.

Sustaining proliferative signaling. Pathological cancer cell growth relies on maintenance of proliferative signaling pathways with increased autonomy relative to non-malignant cells. Several lines of evidence argue that glutamine reinforces activity of these pathways. In some cancer cells, excess glutamine is exported in exchange for leucine and other essential amino acids. This exchange facilitates activation of the serine/threonine kinase mTOR, a major positive regulator of cell growth (28). In addition, glutamine-derived nitrogen is a component of amino sugars, known as hexosamines, that are used to glycosylate growth factor receptors and promote their localization to the cell surface. Disruption of hexosamine synthesis reduces the ability to initiate signaling pathways downstream of growth factors (29).

Enabling replicative immortality. Some aspects of glutamine metabolism oppose senescence and promote replicative immortality in cultured cells. In IMR90 lung fibroblasts, silencing either of two NADPH-generating isoforms of malic enzyme (ME1, ME2) rapidly induced senescence, while malic enzyme overexpression suppressed senescence (30). Both malic enzyme isoforms are repressed at the transcriptional level by p53 and contribute to enhanced levels of glutamine consumption and NADPH production in p53-deficient cells. The ability of p53-replete cells to resist senescence required the expression of ME1 and ME2, and silencing either enzyme reduced the growth of TP53+/+ and, to a lesser degree, TP53–/– tumors (30). These observations position malic enzymes as potential therapeutic targets.

Resisting cell death. Although many cancer cells require glutamine for survival, cells with enhanced expression of Myc oncoproteins are particularly sensitive to glutamine deprivation (8, 12, 16). In these cells, glutamine deprivation induces depletion of TCA cycle intermediates, depression of ATP levels, delayed growth, diminished glutathione pools, and apoptosis. Myc drives glutamine uptake and catabolism by activating the expression of genes involved in glutamine metabolism, including GLSand SLC1A5, which encodes the Na+-dependent amino acid transporter ASCT2 (12, 16). SilencingGLS mimicked some of the effects of glutamine deprivation, including growth suppression in Myc-expressing cells and tumors (10, 12). MYCN amplification occurs in 20%–25% of neuroblastomas and is correlated with poor outcome (31). In cells with high N-Myc levels, glutamine deprivation triggered an ATF4-dependent induction of apoptosis that could be prevented by restoring downstream metabolites oxaloacetate and α-ketoglutarate (15). In this model, pharmacological activation of ATF4, inhibition of glutamine metabolic enzymes, or combinations of these treatments mimicked the effects of glutamine deprivation in cells and suppressed growth of MYCN-amplified subcutaneous and transgenic tumors in mice.

The PKC isoform PKC-ζ also regulates glutamine metabolism. Loss of PKC-ζ enhances glutamine utilization and enables cells to survive glucose deprivation (32). This effect requires flux of carbon and nitrogen from glutamine into serine. PKC-ζ reduces the expression of phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase, an enzyme required for glutamine-dependent serine biosynthesis, and also phosphorylates and inactivates this enzyme. Thus, PKC-ζ loss, which promotes intestinal tumorigenesis in mice, enables cells to alter glutamine metabolism in response to nutrient stress.

Invasion and metastasis. Loss of the epithelial cell-cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin is a component of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition, and is sufficient to induce migration, invasion, and tumor progression (33, 34). Addiction to glutamine may oppose this process because glutamine favors stabilization of tight junctions in some cells (35). Furthermore, the selection of breast cancer cells with the ability to grow without glutamine yielded highly adaptable subpopulations with enhanced mesenchymal marker expression and improved capacity for anchorage-independent growth, therapeutic resistance, and metastasis in vivo (36). It is unknown whether this result reflects a primary role for glutamine in suppressing these markers of aggressiveness in breast cancer, or whether prolonged glutamine deprivation selects for cells with enhanced fitness across a number of phenotypes.

Organ-specific glutamine metabolism in health and disease

As a major player in carbon and nitrogen transport, glutamine metabolism displays complex inter-organ dynamics, with some organs functioning as net producers and others as consumers (Figure 2). Organ-specific glutamine metabolism has frequently been studied in humans and animal models by measuring the arteriovenous difference in plasma glutamine abundance. In healthy subjects, the plasma glutamine pool is largely the result of release from skeletal muscle (3739). In rats, the lungs are comparable to muscle in terms of glutamine production (40, 41), and human lungs also have the capacity for marked glutamine release, although such release is most prominent in times of stress (42, 43). Stress-induced release from the lung is regulated by an induction of glutamine synthase expression as a consequence of glucocorticoid signaling and other mechanisms (44, 45). Although this results in a small arteriovenous difference, the overall release of glutamine is significant because of the large pulmonary perfusion. In rats and humans, adipose tissue is a minor but potentially important source of glutamine (46, 47). The liver has the capacity to synthesize or catabolize glutamine, with these activities subject both to regional heterogeneity among hepatocytes and regulatory effects of systemic acidosis and hyperammonemia. However, the liver does not appear to be a major contributor to the plasma glutamine pool in healthy rats and humans (39, 48, 49).

Model for inter-organ glutamine metabolism in health and cancer.Figure 2Model for inter-organ glutamine metabolism in health and cancer. Organs that release glutamine into the bloodstream are shown in green, and those that consume glutamine are in red; the shade denotes magnitude of consumption/release. For some organs (liver, kidneys), evidence from model systems and/or human studies suggests that there is a change in net glutamine flux during tumorigenesis.

Glutamine consumption occurs largely in the gut and kidney. The organs of the gastrointestinal tract drained by the portal vein, particularly the small intestine, are major consumers of plasma glutamine in both rats and humans (37, 38, 49, 50). Enterocytes oxidize more than half of glutamine carbon to CO2, accounting for a third of the respiration of these cells in fasting animals (51). The kidney consumes net quantities of glutamine to maintain acid-base balance (37, 38, 52, 53). During acidosis, the kidneys substantially increase their uptake of glutamine, cleaving it by GLS to produce ammonia, which is excreted along with organic acids to maintain physiologic pH (52, 54). Glutamine is also a major metabolic substrate in lymphocytes and macrophages, at least during mitogenic stimulation of primary cells in culture (5557).

Importantly, cancer seems to cause major changes in inter-organ glutamine trafficking (Figure 2). Currently, much work in this area is derived from studies in methylcholanthrene-induced fibrosarcoma in the rat, a model of an aggressively growing, glutamine-consuming tumor. In this model, fibrosarcoma induces skeletal muscle expression of glutamine synthetase and greatly increases the release of glutamine into the circulation. As the tumor increases in size, intramuscular glutamine pools are depleted in association with loss of lean muscle mass, mimicking the cachectic phenotype of humans in advanced stages of cancer (52). Simultaneously, both the liver and the kidneys become net glutamine exporters, although the hepatic effect may be diminished as the tumor size becomes very large (48, 49, 52). Glutamine utilization by organs supplied by the portal vein is diminished in cancer (48). In addition to its function as a nutrient for the tumor itself, and possibly for cancer-associated immune cells, glutamine provides additional, indirect metabolic benefits to both the tumor and the host. For example, glutamine was used as a gluconeogenic substrate in cachectic mice with large orthotopic gliomas, providing a significant source of carbon in the plasma glucose pool (58). This glucose was taken up and metabolized by the tumor to produce lactate and to supply the TCA cycle.

It will be valuable to extend work in human inter-organ glutamine trafficking, both in healthy subjects and in cancer patients. Such studies will likely produce a better understanding of the pathophysiology of cancer cachexia, a major source of morbidity and mortality. Research in this area should also aid in the anticipation of organ-specific toxicities of drugs designed to interfere with glutamine metabolism. Alterations of glutamine handling in cancer may induce a different spectrum of toxicities compared with healthy subjects.

Tumors differ according to their need for glutamine

One important consideration is that not all cancer cells need an exogenous supply of glutamine. A panel of lung cancer cell lines displayed significant variability in their response to glutamine deprivation, with some cells possessing almost complete independence (59). Breast cancer cells also demonstrate systematic differences in glutamine dependence, with basal-type cells tending to be glutamine dependent and luminal-type cells tending to be glutamine independent (60). Resistance to glutamine deprivation is associated with the ability to synthesize glutamine de novo and/or to engage alternative pathways of anaplerosis (10, 60).

Tumors also display variable levels of glutamine metabolism in vivo. A study of orthotopic gliomas revealed that genetically diverse, human-derived tumors took up glutamine in the mouse brain but did not catabolize it (58). Rather, the tumors synthesized glutamine de novo and used pyruvate carboxylation for anaplerosis. Cells derived from these tumors did not require glutamine to survive or proliferate when cultured ex vivo. Glutamine synthesis from glucose was also a prominent feature of primary gliomas in human subjects infused with 13C-glucose at the time of surgical resection (61). Furthermore, an analysis of glutamine metabolism in lung and liver tumors revealed that both the tissue of origin and the oncogene influence whether the tumor produces or consumes glutamine (62). MET-induced hepatic tumors produced glutamine, whereas Myc-induced liver tumors catabolized it. In the lung, however, Myc expression was associated with glutamine accumulation.

This variability makes it imperative to develop ways to predict which tumors have the highest likelihood of responding to inhibitors of glutamine metabolism. Methods to image or otherwise quantify glutamine metabolism in vivo would be useful in this regard (63). Infusions of pre-surgical subjects with isotopically labeled glutamine, followed by extraction of metabolites from the tumor and analysis of 13C enrichment, can be used to detect both glutamine uptake and catabolism (58, 62). However, this approach requires a specimen of the tumor to be obtained. Approaches for glutamine-based imaging, which avoid this problem, include a number of glutamine analogs compatible with PET. Although glutamine could in principle be imaged using the radioisotopes 11C, 13N, or 18F, the relatively long half-life of the latter increases its appeal. In mice, 18F-(2S, 4R)4-fluoroglutamine is avidly taken up by tumors derived from highly glutaminolytic cells, and by glutamine-consuming organs including the intestine, kidney, liver, and pancreas (64). Labeled analogs of glutamate are also taken up by some tumors (65, 66). One of these, (4S)-4-(3-[18F] fluoropropyl)-L-glutamate (18F-FSPG, also called BAY 94-9392), was evaluated in small clinical trials involving patients with several types of cancer (65, 67). This analog enters the cell through the cystine/glutamate exchange transporter (xCtransport system), which is linked to glutathione biosynthesis (68). The analog was well tolerated, with high tumor detection rates and good tumor-to-background ratios in hepatocellular carcinoma and lung cancer.

PET approaches detect analog uptake and retention but cannot provide information about downstream metabolism. Analysis of hyperpolarized nuclei can provide a real-time view of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. This technique involves redistribution of the populations of energy levels of a nucleus (e.g., 13C, 15N), resulting in a gain in magnetic resonance signal that can temporarily exceed 10,000-fold (69). This gain in signal enables rapid detection of both the labeled molecule and its downstream metabolites. Glutamine has been hyperpolarized on 15N and 13C (70, 71). In the latter case, the conversion of hyperpolarized glutamine to glutamate could be detected in intact hepatoma cells (70). If these analogs are translated to clinical studies, they might provide a dynamic view of the proximal reactions of glutaminolysis in vivo.

Pharmacological strategies to inhibit glutamine metabolism in cancer

Efforts to inhibit glutamine metabolism using amino acid analogs have an extensive history, including evaluation in clinical trials. Acivicin, 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine, and azaserine, three of the most widely studied analogs (Figure 1), all demonstrated variable degrees of gastrointestinal toxicity, myelosuppression, and neurotoxicity (72). Because these agents non-selectively target glutamine-consuming processes, recent interest has focused on developing methods directed at specific nodes of glutamine metabolism. First, ASCT2, the Na+-dependent neutral amino acid transporter encoded by SLC1A5, is broadly expressed in lung cancer cell lines and accounts for a majority of glutamine transport in those cells (Figure 1). It has been shown that γ-L-glutamyl-p-nitroanilide (GPNA) inhibits this transporter and limits lung cancer cell growth (73). Additional interest in GPNA lies in its ability to enhance the uptake of drugs imported via the monocarboxylate transporter MCT1. Suppressing glutamine uptake with GPNA enhances MCT1 stability and stimulates uptake of the glycolytic inhibitor 3-bromopyruvate (3-BrPyr) (74, 75). Because enforced MCT1 overexpression is sufficient to sensitize tumor xenografts to 3-BrPyr (76), GPNA may have a place in 3-BrPyr–based therapeutic regimens.

Two inhibitors of GLS isoforms have been characterized in recent years (Figure 1). Compound 968, an inhibitor of the GLS-encoded splice isoform GAC, inhibits the transformation of fibroblasts by oncogenic RhoGTPases and delays the growth of GLS-expressing lymphoma xenografts (13). Bis-2-(5-phenylacetamido-1,2,4-thiadiazol-2-yl)ethyl sulfide (BPTES) also potently inhibits GLS isoforms encoded by GLS (77). BPTES impairs ATP levels and growth rates of P493 lymphoma cells under both normoxic and hypoxic conditions and suppresses the growth of P493-derived xenografts (78).

Evidence also supports a role for targeting the flux from glutamate to α-ketoglutarate, although no potent, specific inhibitors yet exist to inhibit these enzymes in intact cells. Aminooxyacetate (AOA) inhibits aminotransferases non-specifically, but milliomolar doses are typically used to achieve this effect in cultured cells (Figure 1). Nevertheless, AOA has demonstrated efficacy in both breast adenocarcinoma xenografts and autochthonous neuroblastomas in mice (15, 79). Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a green tea polyphenol, has numerous pharmacological effects, one of which is to inhibit GDH (80). The effects of EGCG on GDH have been used to kill glutamine-addicted cancer cells during glucose deprivation or glycolytic inhibition (17, 18) and to suppress growth of neuroblastoma xenografts (15).

A paradigm to exploit glutamine metabolism in cancer

Recent advances in glutamine-based imaging, coupled with the successful application of glutamine metabolic inhibitors in mouse models of cancer, make it possible to conceive of treatment plans that feature consideration of tumor glutamine utilization. A key challenge will be predicting which tumors are most likely to respond to inhibitors of glutamine metabolism. Neuroblastoma is used here as an example of a tumor in which evidence supports the utility of strategies that would involve both glutamine-based imaging and therapy (Figure 3). Neuroblastoma is the second most common extracranial solid malignancy of childhood. High-risk neuroblastoma is defined by age, stage, and biological features of the tumor, including MYCN amplification, which occurs in some 20%–25% of cases (31). Because MYCN-amplified tumor cells require glutamine catabolism for survival and growth (15), glutamine-based PET at the time of standard diagnostic imaging could help predict which tumors would be likely to respond to inhibitors of glutamine metabolism. Infusion of 13C-glutamine coordinated with the diagnostic biopsy could then enable inspection of 13C enrichment in glutamine-derived metabolites from the tumor, confirming the activity of glutamine catabolic pathways. Following on evidence from mouse models of neuroblastoma, treatment could then include agents directed against glutamine catabolism (15). Of note, some tumors were sensitive to the ATF4 agonist fenretinide (FRT), alone or in combination with EGCG. Importantly, FRT has already been the focus of a Phase I clinical trial in children with solid tumors, including neuroblastoma, and was fairly well tolerated (81).

A strategy to integrate glutamine metabolism into the diagnosis, classificaFigure 3A strategy to integrate glutamine metabolism into the diagnosis, classification, treatment, and monitoring of neuroblastoma. Neuroblastoma commonly presents in children as an abdominal mass. A standard evaluation of a child with suspected neuroblastoma includes measurement of urine catecholamines, a bone scan, and full-body imaging with meta-iodobenzylguanidine (MIBG), all of which contribute to diagnosis and disease staging. In animal models, a subset of these tumors requires glutamine metabolism. This finding implies that approaches to image, quantify, or block glutamine metabolism (highlighted in red) in human neuroblastoma could be incorporated into the diagnosis and management of this disease. In particular, glutamine metabolic studies may help predict which tumors would respond to therapies targeting glutamine metabolism. HVA, homovanillic acid; VMA, vanillylmandelic acid.


Glutamine is a versatile nutrient required for the survival and growth of a potentially large subset of tumors. Work over the next several years should produce a more accurate picture of the molecular determinants of glutamine addiction and the identification of death pathways that execute cells when glutamine catabolism is impaired. Advancement of glutamine-based imaging into clinical practice should soon make it possible to differentiate tumors that take up glutamine from those that do not. Finally, the development of safe, high-potency inhibitors of key metabolic nodes should facilitate therapeutic regimens featuring inhibition of glutamine metabolism.

Therapeutic strategies impacting cancer cell glutamine metabolism

The metabolic adaptations that support oncogenic growth can also render cancer cells dependent on certain nutrients. Along with the Warburg effect, increased utilization of glutamine is one of the metabolic hallmarks of the transformed state. Glutamine catabolism is positively regulated by multiple oncogenic signals, including those transmitted by the Rho family of GTPases and by c-Myc. The recent identification of mechanistically distinct inhibitors of glutaminase, which can selectively block cellular transformation, has revived interest in the possibility of targeting glutamine metabolism in cancer therapy. Here, we outline the regulation and roles of glutamine metabolism within cancer cells and discuss possible strategies for, and the consequences of, impacting these processes therapeutically.

Cancer cell metabolism & glutamine addiction

Interest in the metabolic changes characteristic of malignant transformation has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the cancer biology and pharmaceutical communities. However, the recognition that an important connection exists between cellular metabolism and cancer began nearly a century ago with the work of Otto Warburg [13]. Warburg found that rapidly proliferating tumor cells exhibit elevated glucose uptake and glycolytic flux, and furthermore that much of the pyruvate generated by glycolysis is reduced to lactate rather than undergoing mitochondrial oxidation via the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle (Figure 1). This phenomenon persists even under aerobic conditions (‘aerobic glycolysis’), and is known as the Warburg effect [4]. Warburg proposed that aerobic glycolysis was caused by defective mitochondria in cancer cells, but it is now known that mitochondrial dysfunction is relatively rare and that most tumors have an unimpaired capacity for oxidative phosphorylation [5]. In fact, the most important selective advantages provided by the Warburg effect are still debated. Although aerobic glycolysis is an inefficient way to produce ATP (2 ATP/glucose vs ~36 ATP/glucose by complete oxidation), a high glycolytic flux can generate ATP rapidly and furthermore can provide a biosynthetic advantage by supplying precursors and reducing equivalents for the synthesis of macromolecules [4]. The mechanisms underlying the Warburg effect are also not yet fully resolved, although it is increasingly clear that a number of oncogenes and tumor suppressors contribute to the phenomenon. The PI3K/Akt/mTORC1 signaling axis, for example, is a key regulator of aerobic glycolysis and biosynthesis, driving the surface expression of nutrient transporters and the upregulation of glycolytic enzymes [6]. The HIF transcription factor also upregulates expression of glucose transporters and glycolytic enzymes in response to hypoxia and growth factors (or loss of the von Hippel–Landau [VHL] tumor suppressor), and the oncogenic transcription factor c-Myc similarly induces expression of proteins important for glycolysis [6].

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc. Object name is nihms610340f1.jpg

Cell proliferation requires metabolic reprogramming

A second major change in the metabolic program of many cancer cells, and the primary focus of this review, is the alteration of glutamine metabolism. Glutamine is the major carrier of nitrogen between organs, and the most abundant amino acid in plasma [7]. It is also a key nutrient for numerous intracellular processes including oxidative metabolism and ATP generation, biosynthesis of proteins, lipids and nucleic acids, and also redox homeostasis and the regulation of signal transduction pathways [810]. Although most mammalian cells are capable of synthesizing glutamine, the demand for this amino acid can become so great during rapid proliferation that an additional extracellular supply is required; hence glutamine is considered conditionally essential [11]. Indeed, many cancer cells are ‘glutamine addicted’, and cannot survive in the absence of an exogenous glutamine supply [12,13].

An important step in the elevation of glutamine catabolism is the activation of the mitochondrial enzyme glutaminase, which catalyzes the hydrolysis of glutamine to generate glutamate and ammonium. The subsequent deamination of glutamate releases a second ammonium to yield the TCA cycle intermediate α-ketoglutarate (α-KG), a reaction catalyzed by glutamate dehydrogenase (GLUD1). This series of reactions is particularly important in rapidly proliferating cells, in which a considerable proportion of the TCA cycle metabolite citrate is exported from mitochondria in order to generate cytosolic acetyl-CoA for lipid biosynthesis [14]. Replenishment of TCA cycle intermediates (anaplerosis) is therefore required, and glutamine often serves as the key anaplerotic substrate through its conversion via glutamate to α-KG (Figure 1).

Mammals express two genes for glutaminase enzymes [1517]. The GLS gene encodes a protein initially characterized in kidney and thus called kidney-type glutaminase (KGA), although this enzyme and its shorter splice variant glutaminase C (GAC), collectively referred to as GLS, are now known to be widely distributed [1820]. The KGA and GAC isoforms share identical N-terminal and catalytic domains, encoded by exons 1–14 of the GLS gene, but have distinct C-termini derived from exon 15 in the case of GAC and exons 16–19 in the case of KGA [21]. Upregulation of GLS, in particular the GAC iso-form, is common in cancer cells and the degree of GLS overexpression correlates with both the degree of malignancy and the tumor grade in human breast cancer samples [22,23]. The GLS2 gene encodes a protein originally discovered and characterized in liver, which has thus been referred to as liver-type glutaminase and, more recently, as glutaminase 2 (GLS2) [15].

Both KGA and GAC can be activated by inorganic phosphate (Pi), and this activation correlates closely with a dimer-to-tetramer transition for each enzyme [7, 22]. As the concentration of Pi is raised the apparent catalytic constant, kcatapp, increases and simultaneously the apparent Michaelis constant, Kmapp, decreases; consequently the catalytic efficiency rises dramatically, especially in the case of GAC [22]. x-ray crystal structures of GAC and KGA in different states indicate that the positioning of a key loop within each monomer (Glu312 to Pro329), located between the active site and the dimer–dimer interface, is critical for mediating tetramerization-induced activation [22,24]. Given the ability of Pi to promote tetramerization and activation of GAC and KGA, it has been proposed that the elevated mitochondrial Pi levels found under hypoxic conditions, which are commonly encountered in the tumor microenvironment, could be one trigger for GLS activation [22].

Oncogenic alterations affecting glutamine metabolism

At least two classes of cellular signals regulate glutamine metabolism, influencing both the expression level and the enzymatic activity of GLS. The transcription factor c-Myc can suppress the expression of microRNAs miR-23a and miR-23b and, in doing so, upregulates GLS (specifically GAC) expression [13,25]. Independent of changes in GAC expression, oncogenic diffuse B-cell lymphoma protein (Dbl), a GEF for Rho GTPases and oncogenic variants of downstream Rho GTPases are able to signal to activate GAC in a manner that is dependent on NF-κB [23]. Mitochondria isolated from Dbl- or Rho GTPase-transformed NIH-3T3 fibroblasts demonstrate significantly higher basal glutaminase activity than mitochondria isolated from non-transformed cells [23]. Furthermore, the enzymatic activity of GAC immunoprecipitated from Dbl-transformed cells is elevated relative to GAC from non-transformed cells, indicating the presence of activating post-translational modification(s) [23]. Indeed, when GAC isolated from Dbl-transformed cells is treated with alkaline phosphatase, basal enzymatic activity is dramatically reduced [23]. Collectively, these findings point to phosphorylation events underlying the activation of GAC in transformed cells. Similarly, phosphorylation-dependent regulation of KGA activity downstream of the Raf-Mek-Erk signaling axis occurs in response to EGF stimulation [24].

It is becoming clear that, in addition to c-Myc and Dbl, many other oncogenic signals and environmental conditions can impact cellular glutamine metabolism. Loss of the retinoblastoma tumor suppressor, for example, leads to a marked increase in glutamine uptake and catabolism, and renders mouse embryonic fibroblasts dependent on exogenous glutamine [26]. Cells transformed by KRAS also illustrate increased expression of genes associated with glutamine metabolism and a corresponding increased utilization of glutamine for anabolic synthesis [27]. In fact, KRAS signaling appears to induce glutamine dependence, since the deleterious effects of glutamine withdrawal in KRAS-driven cells can be rescued by expression of a dominant-negative GEF for Ras [28]. Downstream of Ras, the Raf-MEK-ERK signaling pathway has been implicated in the upregulation of glutamine uptake and metabolism [24,29]. A recent study using human pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cells identified a novel KRAS-regulated metabolic pathway, through which glutamine supports cell growth [30]. Proliferation of KRAS-mutant pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cells depends on GLS-catalyzed production of glutamate, but not on downstream deamination of glutamate to α-KG; instead, transaminase-mediated glutamate metabolism is essential for growth. Glutamine-derived aspartate is subsequently transported into the cytoplasm where it is converted by aspartate transaminase into oxaloacetate, which can be used to generate malate and pyruvate. The series of reactions maintains NADPH levels and thus the cellular redox state [30].

Other recent studies have revealed that another pathway for glutamine metabolism can be essential under hypoxic conditions, and also in cancer cells with mitochondrial defects or loss of the VHL tumor suppressor [3135]. In these situations, glutamine-derived α-KG undergoes reductive carboxylation by IDH1 or IDH2 to generate citrate, which can be exported from mitochondria to support lipogenesis (Figure 1). Activation of HIF is both necessary and sufficient for driving the reductive carboxylation phenotype in renal cell carcinoma, and suppression of HIF activity can induce a switch from glutamine-mediated lipogenesis back to glucose-mediated lipogenesis [32,35]. Furthermore, loss of VHL and consequent downstream activation of HIF renders renal cell carcinoma cells sensitive to inhibitors of GLS [35]. Evidently, the metabolic routes through which glutamine supports cancer cell proliferation vary with genetic background and with microenvironmental conditions. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that diverse oncogenic signals promote glutamine utilization and furthermore that hypoxia, a common condition within poorly vascularized tumors, increases glutamine dependence.


Consistent with the critical role of TCA cycle anaplerosis in cancer cell proliferation, a range of glutamine-dependent cancer cell lines are sensitive to silencing or inhibition of GLS [23,93]. Although loss of GLS suppresses proliferation, in some cases the induction of a compensatory anaplerotic mechanism mediated by pyruvate carboxylase (PC) allows the use of glucose- rather than glutamine-derived carbon for anaplerosis [93]. Low glutamine conditions render glioblastoma cells completely dependent on PC for proliferation; reciprocally, glucose deprivation causes them to become dependent on GLUD1, presumably as a mediator of glutamine-dependent anaplerosis [94]. These studies provide insight into the possibility of inhibiting glutamine-dependent TCA cycle anaplerosis (e.g., with 968 or BPTES) and indicate that high expression of PC could represent a means of resistance to GLS inhibitors.

In c-Myc-induced human Burkitt lymphoma P493 cells, entry of glucose-derived carbon into the TCA cycle is attenuated under hypoxia, whereas glutamine oxidation via the TCA cycle persists [95]. Upon complete withdrawal of glucose, the TCA cycle continues to function and is driven by glutamine. The proportions of viable and proliferating cell populations are almost identical in glucose-replete and -deplete conditions so long as glutamine is present. Inhibition of GLS by BPTES causes a decrease in ATP and glutathione levels, with a simultaneous increase in reactive oxygen species production. Strikingly, whereas BPTES treatment under aerobic conditions suppresses proliferation, under hypoxic conditions it results in cell death, an effect ascribed to glutamine’s critical roles in alleviating oxidative stress in addition to supporting bioenergetics.

In addition to deamidation, glutamine-derived carbon can also reach the TCA cycle through transamination [96], and recent studies indicate that inhibition of this process could be a promising strategy for cancer treatment [30,97,98]. The transaminase inhibitor amino-oxyacetate selectively suppresses proliferation of the aggressive breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-231 relative to normal human mammary epithelial cells, and similar effects were observed with siRNA knockdown of aspartate transaminase [97]. Treatment with amino-oxyacetate killed glutamine-dependent glioblastoma cells, in a manner that could be rescued by α-KG and was dependent on c-Myc expression [13]. Transaminase inhibitors have also been found to suppress both anchorage-dependent and anchorage-independent growth of lung carcinoma cells [98].

Reductive carboxylation

The central metabolic precursor for fatty acid biosynthesis is acetyl-CoA, which can be generated from pyruvate in the mitochondria by pyruvate dehydrogenase. Since acetyl-CoA cannot cross the inner mitochondrial membrane, it is exported to the cytosol via the citrate shuttle following its condensation with oxaloacetate in the TCA cycle (Figure 3). In the cytosol, citrate is converted back to acetyl-CoA and oxaloacetate in a reaction catalyzed by ATP citrate lyase. In addition to its synthesis from glycolytic pyruvate, citrate can also be generated by reductive carboxylation of α-KG [99]. Across a range of cancer cell lines, 10–25% of lipogenic acetyl-CoA is generated from glutamine via this reductive pathway; indeed, reductive metabolism is the primary route for incorporation of glutamine, glutamate and α-KG carbon into lipids [32]. Some of the reductive carboxylation of α-KG is catalyzed by cytosolic IDH1, as well as by mitochondrial IDH2 and/or IDH3.

In A549 lung carcinoma cells, glutamine dependence and reductive carboxylation flux increases under hypoxic conditions [32,34], such that glutamine-derived α-KG accounts for approximately 80% of the carbon used for de novo lipogenesis. Similarly, in melanoma cells, the major source of carbon for acetyl-CoA, citrate and fatty acids switches from glucose under normoxia to glutamine (via reductive carboxylation) under hypoxia [31]. The hypoxic switch to reductive glutamine metabolism is dependent on HIF, and constitutive activation of HIF is sufficient to induce the preferential reductive metabolism of α-KG even under normoxic conditions [32]. Tumor cells with mitochondrial defects, such as electron-transport chain mutations/inhibition, also use glutamine-dependent reductive carboxylation as the major pathway for citrate generation, and loss of electron-transport chain activity is sufficient to induce a switch from glucose to glutamine as the primary source of lipogenic carbon [33].

Together these studies indicate that mitochondrial defects/inhibition, and/or hypoxia, might sensitize cancer cells to inhibition of GLS. The fact that P493 cells are more sensitive to BPTES under hypoxic conditions could in part be explained by an increased reliance on glutamine-dependent reductive carboxylation for lipogenesis [95]. Intriguingly, cancer cells harboring neoenzymatic mutations in IDH1, which results in production of the oncometabolite 2-hydroxyglutarate, are also sensitized to GLS inhibition [100]. 2-hydroxyglutarate is generated primarily from glutamine-derived α-KG [100,101], and therefore tumors expressing mutant IDH might be especially susceptible to alterations in α-KG levels.


As with all therapies, the potential side effects of strategies impacting glutamine metabolism must be seriously considered. The widespread use of l-asparaginase to lower plasma asparagine and glutamine concentrations in ALL patients demonstrates the potential for glutamine metabolism to be safely targeted, and also sheds light on potential toxicological consequences. For example, glutamine is known to be essential for the proliferation of lymphocytes, macrophages and neutrophils, and immunosuppression is a known side effect of l-asparaginase treatment, requiring close monitoring [11,105]. Evidence from early trials using glutamine-mimetic anti-metabolites, such as l-DON, indicates that these unselective molecules can cause excessive gastrointestinal toxicity and neurotoxicity. Within the brain, GLS converts glutamine into the neurotransmitter glutamate in neurons; astrocytes then take up synaptically released glutamate and convert it back to glutamine, which is subsequently transported back to neurons [106,107].


It has become clear during the past decade that altered metabolism plays a critical, in some cases even causal, role in the development and maintenance of cancers. It is now accepted that virtually all oncogenes and tumor suppressors impact metabolic pathways [5]. Furthermore, mutations in certain metabolic enzymes (e.g., isocitrate dehydrogenase, succinate dehydrogenase and fumarate hydratase) are associated with both familial and sporadic human cancers [113]. With this realization has come a renewed interest in the possibility of selectively targeting the metabolism of cancer cells as a therapeutic strategy. The use of l-asparaginase to treat ALL by depleting plasma asparagine and glutamine levels and the promising outcome of the first use of dichloroacetate (which acts, at least in part, through its inhibition of the metabolic enzyme pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase) in glioblastoma patients [114,115], support the notion that cancer metabolism can be safely and effectively targeted in the clinic. The metabolic adaptations of cancer cells must balance the requirements for modestly increased ATP synthesis, dramatically upregulated macromolecular biosynthesis and maintenance of redox balance. By serving as a carbon source for energy generation, a carbon and nitrogen source for biosynthesis and a precursor of the cellular antioxidant glutathione, glutamine is able to contribute to each of these requirements.

The countless combinations of genetic alterations that are found in human neo-plasias mean that there is not a single rigid metabolic program that is characteristic of all transformed cells. This perhaps explains why some current anti-metabolite chemotherapies (e.g., those targeting nucleotide synthesis) are effective only for certain malignancies. A deeper understanding of the metabolic alterations within specific genetic contexts will allow for better-targeted therapeutic interventions. Furthermore, it seems highly likely that combination therapies based on drug synergisms will be especially important for exploiting therapeutic windows within which cancer cells, but not normal cells, are impacted [37]. Glucose and glutamine metabolic pathways, for example, might be able to compensate for one another under some circumstances. When glucose metabolism is impaired in glioblastoma cells, glutamine catabolism becomes essential for survival [94]; reciprocally, suppression of GLS expression causes cells to become fully dependent on glucose-driven TCA cycle anaplerosis via PC [93]. The implication is that PC inhibition could synergize with GLS inhibition.

A topic warranting further investigation is the role that GLS2 plays in cellular metabolism. GLS, in particular the GAC isoform, is upregulated downstream of oncogenes and downregulated by tumor suppressors, and is essential for growth of many cancer cells. In contrast, GLS2 is activated by the ‘universal’ tumor suppressor p53, and furthermore is significantly downregulated in liver tumors and can block transformed characteristics of some cancer cells when overexpressed [116118]. Emphasizing the importance of genetic context, it was recently reported that GLS2 is significantly upregulated in neuroblastomas overexpressing N-Myc [119]. There are various possible explanations for the apparently different roles of two enzymes that catalyze the same reaction. Because the regulation of GLS and GLS2 is distinct, they will be called up under different conditions. The two enzymes have different kinetic characteristics, and therefore might influence energy metabolism and antioxidant defense in different manners [20]. There is also evidence that GLS2 may act, directly or indirectly, as a transcription factor [118]. Finally, it is possible that the different interactions of GLS and GLS2 with other proteins are responsible for their apparently different roles.


Mitochondria as biosynthetic factories for cancer proliferation

Christopher S Ahn and Christian M Metallo

Cancer & Metabolism (2015) 3:1

Unchecked growth and proliferation is a hallmark of cancer, and numerous oncogenic mutations reprogram cellular metabolism to fuel these processes. As a central metabolic organelle, mitochondria execute critical biochemical functions for the synthesis of fundamental cellular components, including fatty acids, amino acids, and nucleotides. Despite the extensive interest in the glycolytic phenotype of many cancer cells, tumors contain fully functional mitochondria that support proliferation and survival. Furthermore, tumor cells commonly increase flux through one or more mitochondrial pathways, and pharmacological inhibition of mitochondrial metabolism is emerging as a potential therapeutic strategy in some cancers. Here, we review the biosynthetic roles of mitochondrial metabolism in tumors and highlight specific cancers where these processes are activated.


Recent characterizations of metabolic enzymes as tumor suppressors and oncogene-driven metabolic reprogramming have reinvigorated interest in cancer metabolism. Although therapies targeting metabolic processes have long been a staple in cancer treatment (e.g. inhibition of folate metabolism via methotrexate), the focused therapeutic potential surrounding these findings have generated a renewed appreciation for Otto Warburg’s work almost a century ago. Warburg observed that tumor cells ferment much of the glucose taken up during growth to lactate, thus using glycolysis as a major means of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) regeneration [1]. However, the observation of decreased respiration in cancer cells and idea that “the respiration of all cancer cells is damaged” belies the critical role of mitochondria in biosynthesis and cell survival [1]. On the contrary, functional mitochondria are present in all proliferative cells within our body (including all tumors), as they are responsible for converting the diverse nutrients available to cells into the fundamental building blocks required for cell growth. These organelles execute numerous functions in cancer cells to promote tumor growth and survival in response to stress. Here, we outline the critical biosynthetic functions served by mitochondria within tumors (Figure 1). Although many of these functions are similarly important in normal, proliferating cells, we have attempted to highlight potential points where mitochondrial metabolism may be therapeutically targeted to slow cancer growth. This review is organized by specific metabolic pathways or processes (i.e., glucose metabolism and lipogenesis, amino acid metabolism, and nucleotide biosynthesis). Tumors or cancer cell types where enzymes in each pathway have been specifically observed to by dysregulated are described within the text and summarized in Table 1.

Figure 1

Biosynthetic nodes within mitochondria. Metabolic pathways within mitochondria that contribute to biosynthesis in cancer and other proliferating cells. TCA metabolism and FOCM enable cells to convert carbohydrates and amino acids to lipids, non-essential amino acids, nucleotides (including purines used for cofactor synthesis), glutathione, heme, and other cellular components. Critical biosynthetic routes are indicated by yellow arrows. Enzymatic reactions that are dependent on redox-sensitive cofactors are depicted in red.

Table 1

Overview of mitochondrial biosynthetic enzymes important in cancer

TCA cycle, anaplerosis, and AcCoA metabolism

Cancers in which three or more mitochondrial enzymes have been studied and found to be differentially regulated (or mutated, as indicated) in cancers vs. control groups are included. Dysregulation of each enzyme was demonstrated in clinical tumors samples, animal models, or cell lines at the levels of genes, mRNA, protein, metabolites, and/or flux.

Figure 2

Coordination of carbon and nitrogen metabolism across amino acids. Glutamate and aKG are key substrates in numerous transamination reactions and can also serve as precursors for glutamine, proline, and the TCA cycle. Mitochondrial enzymes catalyzing these reactions are highlighted in blue, and TCA cycle intermediates are highlighted in orange (pyruvate enters the TCA cycle as acetyl-CoA or oxaloacetate).

Figure 3

Biosynthetic sources for purine and pyrimidine synthesis. Sources and fates of nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms are colored as indicated. Italicized metabolites can be sourced from the mitochondria or cytosol. The double bond formed by the action of DHODH/ubiquinone is also indicated.

Mitochondria operate as both engine and factory in eukaryotes, coordinating cellular energy production and the availability of fundamental building blocks that are required for cell proliferation. Cancer cells must therefore balance their relative bioenergetic and biosynthetic needs to grow, proliferate, and survive within the physical constraints of energy and mass conservation. In contrast to quiescent cells, which predominantly use oxidative mitochondrial metabolism to produce ATP and uptake glucose at much lower rates than proliferating cells, tumor cells exhibit increased glycolytic rates to provide an elevated flux of substrate for biosynthetic pathways, including those executed within mitochondria. Given these higher rates of nutrient utilization, metabolic flux through mitochondrial pathways and the associated ROS production can often be higher in cancer cells. Not surprisingly, activation of cellular antioxidant response pathways is commonly observed in cancer or subpopulations of cells within tumors [46,78]. Cellular compartmentalization affords a degree of protection from such damaging side products of metabolism, and methods which are able to deconvolute the relative contributions of each cellular compartment (e.g. mitochondria, cytosol, peroxisome, etc.) to cancer metabolism will be crucial to more completely understand the metabolism of cancer cells in the future [74,79]. Ultimately, while mitochondrial dysregulation is widely considered to be a hallmark of cancer, numerous mitochondrial functions remain critical for tumor growth and are emerging as clinical targets.

Following this point, it comes as no surprise that mitochondrial metabolism is highly active in virtually all tumors (i.e., cancer cells, stroma, or both), and investigators have begun targeting these pathways to explore potential efficacy. Indeed, some evidence suggests that biguanides such as metformin or phenformin may limit tumor incidence and burden in humans and animals [80,81]. These effects are presumably due, at least in part, to complex I inhibition of the ETC, which significantly perturbs mitochondrial function [82,83]. However, more insights are needed into the mechanisms of these compounds in patients to determine the therapeutic potential of targeting this and other components of mitochondria. In developing new therapies that target cancer metabolism, researchers will face challenges similar to those that are relevant for many established chemotherapies since deleterious effects on normal proliferating cells that also depend on mitochondrial metabolism (and aerobic glycolysis) are likely to arise.

As we acquire a more detailed picture of how specific genetic modifications in a patient’s tumor correlate with its metabolic profile, opportunities for designing targeted or combinatorial therapies will become increasingly apparent. Cancer therapies that address tumor-specific mitochondrial dysregulation and dysfunction may be particularly effective. For example, some cancer cells harbor mutations in TCA enzymes (e.g., FH, SDH, IDH2) or regulatory proteins that control mitophagy (i.e., LKB1) [84]. Such tumors may be compromised with respect to some aspects of mitochondrial biosynthesis and dependent on alternate pathways for growth and/or survival such that synthetically lethal targets emerge. Ultimately, such strategies will require clinicians and researchers to coordinate metabolic, biochemical, and genetic information in the design of therapeutic strategies.


David Terrano, M.D., Ph.D. commented on your update
“Not well versed in Nat peptides so I could not say. I also hesitate with any PNAS paper because those in their academy tend to have a fast track to publication. It has been that way since at least early 2000’s wh n I began research. I don’t doubt their goal and approach (this same group leads the way in methylation-based diagnosis of CNS neoplasms, which is apparently highly accurate). But when I see “dying cells” I know what that means biochemically and look for those hallmarks. Organ specific oligonucleosomes would be a nice cell death surrogate. “

Read Full Post »