Posts Tagged ‘ER positive breast cancer’

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

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

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

Mammalian cells have a variety of mechanisms to metabolize ammonia including

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


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

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

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














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

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

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

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




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

Metabolic recycling of ammonia via glutamate dehydrogenase supports breast cancer biomass

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

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

* *Corresponding author. Email:

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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



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

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

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

New Insights on the Warburg Effect [2.2]

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

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

Warburg Effect and Mitochondrial Regulation- 2.1.3

Refined Warburg Hypothesis -2.1.2



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