Posts Tagged ‘glutamine’

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

Larry H. Bernstein and Radoslav Bozov, co-curation




It would appear that pyruvate is directly used by cancer cell machinery for sustaining genome independence, and that CRISP-Cas9 system is essentially a modified CAD protein for making small bases.

13C-labeled biochemical probes for the study of cancer metabolism with dynamic nuclear polarization-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging

Lucia Salamanca-Cardona and Kayvan R. Keshari

Cancer & Metabolism 2015; 3:9

In recent years, advances in metabolic imaging have become dependable tools for the diagnosis and treatment assessment in cancer. Dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) has recently emerged as a promising technology in hyperpolarized (HP) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and has reached clinical relevance with the successful visualization of [1-13C] pyruvate as a molecular imaging probe in human prostate cancer. This review focuses on introducing representative compounds relevant to metabolism that are characteristic of cancer tissue: aerobic glycolysis and pyruvate metabolism, glutamine addiction and glutamine/glutamate metabolism, and the redox state and ascorbate/dehydroascorbate metabolism. In addition, a brief introduction of probes that can be used to trace necrosis, pH changes, and other pathways relevant to cancer is presented to demonstrate the potential that HP MRI has to revolutionize the use of molecular imaging for diagnosis and assessment of treatments in cancer.


Since the hallmark discovery of the Warburg effect in cancer cells in the 1920s, it has been widely accepted that the metabolic properties of cancer cells are vastly different from those of normal cells [1]. Starting from the observation that many cancerous (neoplastic) cells have higher rates of glucose utilization and lactate production, the development of tools and methods to correlate specific cellular metabolic processes to different types of cancer cells has received increased research focus [2, 3]. Several imaging techniques are currently in use for this purpose, including radiography, scintigraphy, positron emission tomography (PET), single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and magnetic resonance (MR) [4, 5].

For more than 30 years, MR has been a revolutionary diagnostic tool, used in a wide range of settings from the central nervous system to cardiomyopathies and cancers. MR imaging (MRI) can outline molecular and cellular processes with high spatial resolution. Typically, MRI of body tissues is achieved via contrast visualization of the protons (1H) of water, which are present in high abundance in living systems. This can be extended to MR spectroscopy (MRS), which can further differentiate between less abundant, carbon-bearing, biological metabolites in vivo utilizing 1Hs of these compounds [6, 7]. However, despite its usefulness in imaging whole body tissues, 1H MRS has low spectral resolution and poor sensitivity for these less abundant metabolites. In addition,13C MRS is increasingly difficult, in comparison to 1H MRS, in that both the gyromagnetic ratio (approximately 25 % of 1H) and natural abundance (1.1 % of 1H) are significantly lower, making the detection of carbon-bearing compounds difficult [8, 9]. The low spectral resolution of 1H MRS for metabolites can be addressed by using 13C-enriched compounds, and with this direct 13C MRS, metabolic processes can be traced, utilizing enriched tags on specific carbons in a given metabolite [10]. While enrichment of molecules in 13C can also moderately address the sensitivity limitation of MRS, recent work in hyperpolarization (HP) provides a means of dramatically increasing sensitivity and enhancing signals, well beyond that of the equilibrium state obtained via MRS. [11, 12]. The focus of this review will be the introduction of this approach in the setting of cancer metabolism, delineating probes of interest, which have been applied to study metabolic processes in vivo.

Obtaining a hyperpolarized probe

In MR, a desired target is placed in a magnetic field where the nuclear spins of molecules are aligned with or against the direction of the magnetic field. The nuclear spins have thus different energies, and an MR signal is detected upon relaxation of nuclear spins of higher energy. At thermal equilibrium, the number of spins aligned with the magnetic field nearly equals the number of spins opposing the direction of the magnetic field. Thus, at thermal equilibrium, spin polarization is in the order of >0.0005 % resulting in a limited signal. Signal increases on the order of 100,000-fold can be achieved by hyperpolarizing the system via the redistribution of the spin population levels found at equilibrium [10, 13]. There are several techniques that have been used to achieve hyperpolarization of various nuclei: spin-exchange optical pumping of 3He and 129Xe, parahydrogen-induced polarization (PHIP), and dissolution dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) [11,14, 15]. Both PHIP and DNP techniques can polarize biologically relevant nuclei like 13C and 15N, although there is a wider range of molecules that can be targeted for hyperpolarization using dissolution DNP [14, 1618].

The goal of DNP is the transfer of polarization from highly polarized unpaired electron spins to the nuclear spins of a desired target compound. This is achieved by applying an external magnetic field to a free-radical agent in order to polarize electron spins, followed by saturating the electron spin resonance via microwave irradiation in order to obtain polarization transfer. The free-radical agent is generally a stable organic compound that is compatible with aqueous buffers, which are used as solvent in order to obtain a homogeneous distribution of the radical [13]. Nearly 100 % of the electrons on the free-radical agent are polarized when the free-radical/solvent mixture is subjected to high magnetic fields (≥3.3 T) followed by rapid freezing to 1 K using liquid helium in order to obtain a sample frozen to an amorphous state, which is necessary for retention and transfer of polarization [18]. For biological applications, after transfer of electron spin polarization to the nuclei of interest has occurred, the preparation must exist in solution, which can be achieved utilizing a dissolution process in which the solid sample is rapidly melted via injection of a hot solvent, typically a biologically compatible buffer, into the frozen sample [13]. The dissolution process results in a liquid sample at room temperature, while still preserving the enhanced polarization obtained by the microwave irradiation of the frozen sample [8]. Additionally, the use of chelating agents (e.g., EDTA) with the solvent to eliminate trace metals and more recently the use of gadolinium (Gd) chelates with the DNP sample have been used to further enhance and retain polarization in the liquid sample, albeit with caution over potential toxic effects when applied in vivo and the potential for loss of hyperpolarization due to T 1 shortening [11, 19, 20]. More in-depth exploration of the technical aspects of probe development has been previously reviewed [8, 11].

Considerations in probe selection and current research

The usefulness of a molecule for hyperpolarized MRS is dependent on the polarization lifetime of the nucleus of interest, and this property is determined by the spin-lattice relaxation constant (T1) [21]. Dipolar coupling, the magnetic field range, and molecular size can also affect the T1 of a given nucleus. In general, high magnetic fields and large molecular weights decrease the T1. Dipole-dipole coupling of 13C with 1H is common in biologically relevant molecules, and it shortens relaxation times; therefore, carbon atoms directly bound to 1H are generally not useful as probes for HP. For example, all carbons present in glucose (an important substrate in cancer cells) have relaxation times shorter than 2 s [22]. On the other hand, carbonyl carbons of biologically relevant molecules generally have T1’s above 20 s even at high magnetic fields like [1-13C] pyruvic acid, which has relaxation times of 67, 48, and 44 s at 3, 11.7, and 14.1 T, respectively [2325]. Even carbons that are less oxidized than carbonyls, like the hemi-ketal in [2-13C] fructose have T1’s one order of magnitude higher than glucose carbons. Short spin-lattice relaxation times can sometimes be increased by deuterium enrichment of the sample. With this technique, protons that are directly bound to carbons are exchanged for deuterium atoms which results in the reduction of dipole-dipole relaxation, further preserving the hyperpolarized state [26]. This has resulted in increased T1’s of 13C nuclei in molecules such as glucose (T1 increased from 2 s to 10–14 s), providing the possibility of utilizing them in future metabolic studies [2729]. Despite the effect of deuterium enrichment, research efforts have largely focused on developing carbonyl-bearing molecules as molecular imaging probes. The focus of this review is to introduce representative compounds relevant to metabolism that are characteristic of cancer tissue and have been applied in the work of multiple groups: aerobic glycolysis, glutamine addiction, and the redox state.

Pyruvate and aerobic glycolysis

Of particular interest to cancer metabolism is the increased conversion of glucose to lactate as a result of modulated aerobic glycolysis. This process, also known as the Warburg effect, is characteristic of many tumors with altered metabolism where pyruvate generated from glucose metabolism via glycolysis is preferentially converted to lactate by lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) as opposed to entering the tricarboxylic acid cycle [1]. With this phenotype, cancer cells show a preference for lactate fermentation even in the presence of oxygen, thus bypassing oxidative respiration for ATP generation. Because of this, pyruvate has been the preferred probe for HP MRS research since it is an intermediate metabolite in pathways characteristic of aberrant metabolism in cancer cells, including increased lactate production as a result of aerobic glycolysis where detection of HP pyruvate-derived lactate can be used as a marker for cancer and response to treatment [30, 31] as well as an intermediate in amino acid metabolism (e.g., interconversion to alanine via transamination with glutamate) (Fig. 1). In addition, as mentioned before, carbonyl carbons in pyruvate have long relaxation times where even the methyl carbon can have T1’s above 50 s after deuterium enrichment [32]. The interconversion of pyruvate to lactate has been exploited for MRI by using [1-13C] pyruvate and detecting the accumulation of increased lactate in cancerous tissue as compared to surrounding benign tissue. Increased conversion of pyruvate to lactate and alanine has been demonstrated to precede MYC-driven tumorigenesis by using HP [1-13C] pyruvate in murine models [33]. Furthermore, in the same study, a decrease in the flux of alanine was observed at the tumor stage while a decrease in lactate conversion was indicative of tumor regression [33]. In transgenic adenocarcinoma of mouse prostate (TRAMP) models, in vivo studies using HP [1-13C] pyruvate demonstrated that hyperpolarized pyruvate and its metabolic products can be used non-invasively and with high specificity to obtain a profile of the histologic grade of prostate cancers [34]. In vivo imaging following hyperpolarized pyruvate has also been used to evaluate the role of glutaminase and LDH in human lymphoma models [35] as well as to elucidate metabolism of pyruvate in breast cancer [36] and renal cell carcinoma with treatment [30, 37].
Flux of hyperpolarized [1-13C] pyruvate to [1-13C] lactate in prostate regions. a MR image from patient with prostate cancer showing regions of cancerous tissue and surrounding normal tissue. bd Localized dynamic hyperpolarized [1-13C]pyruvate and [1-13C]lactate spectral from voxels overlapping the contralateral region of prostate (turquoise), a region of prostate cancer (yellow), and a vessel outside the prostate (green). Adapted with permission from ref. [43]

Early work that utilized HP pyruvate to assess the response of tumors to treatment was conducted in mice xenografted with EL-4 lymphoma cells and treated with etoposide, a topoisomerase inhibitor that causes rapid cell death [38, 39]. In this study, tumor necrosis was correlated to a decrease in the flux of hyperpolarized lactate which was suggested to be due to a decrease in NAD+ and NADH in the intracellular pool as well as loss of LDH function. More recently, HP [1-13C] pyruvate has been used as a biomarker to evaluate early response to radiation therapy in glioma tumors by observing a decrease in hyperpolarized lactate suggested to be a result of changes in tumor perfusion which can be detected between 24 and 96 h following treatment [40, 41]. HP [1-13C] pyruvate has also been used to detect early response to temozolomide (TMZ) treatment on human glioblastoma rat models [42]. The study successfully showed for the first time detection of response to TMZ therapy 1 day after TMZ administration. The continued reports on using HP pyruvate as an imaging probe for assessing treatment response indicate the potential of the compound to become a standard in the field. Moreover, these studies demonstrate the usefulness of HP [1-13C] pyruvate as a tool for early assessment of therapy response, which can improve treatment selection at the clinical level. Pyruvate has also been validated as a metabolic imaging marker for use in humans [43]. In a two-phase study, patients with biopsy-proven prostate cancer of various histological grades were injected with HP [1-13C] pyruvate. In the first phase, a maximum dose level was determined to establish pharmacological safety of the HP probe while still injecting enough pyruvate to allow visualization. This addressed one of the major challenges faced in translating HP MRI to clinical applications: the potential toxicity of compounds that must be injected into patients. In the second phase, metabolism of pyruvate was visualized in real time and differences in the ratio of [1-13C] lactate to [1-13C] pyruvate between identified cancerous regions and normal tissue regions were successfully observed (Fig. 1ad). [1-13C] lactate in regions that did not contain tumor was not detected, confirming previous biopsy and preclinical studies that demonstrated low flux of [1-13C] pyruvate to lactate and low concentrations of lactate in benign prostate tissues [44, 45]. Preliminary results indicated the possibility of detecting previously unobserved cancerous regions by HP [1-13C] pyruvate, later confirmed to be Gleason 4+3 cancer by biopsy, though further investigation into the relationship between grade and metabolism in prostate cancer patients is needed. While there are challenges associated with translation to clinical use for HP [1-13C] pyruvate, the first in human study demonstrated the feasibility of hyperpolarization technology as a safe diagnostic tool and provides the potential for utilizing this approach in preclinical models with direct translation to the clinic.

Glutamine metabolism

Glutamine is an amino acid that plays an important cellular role as nitrogen donor in the form of an amide group for purine and pyrimidine biosynthesis, leaving a glutamate molecule in the process although glutamine can also be converted to glutamate by glutaminase in a reaction independent of nucleotide biosynthesis. Glutamate is the primary nitrogen donor for the biosynthesis of non-essential amino acids. Transaminases catalyze the transfer of the amine group from glutamate to α-ketoacids to synthesize alanine, aspartate (precursor for asparagine), serine (precursor for glycine and cysteine), ornithine (precursor for arginine), and proline which is derived from the glutamate carbon backbone. Glutamine is considered a non-essential amino acid as it can be recycled from glutamate and ammonia in a reaction catalyzed by glutamine synthetase; however, some cancer cells show increase consumption of glutamine and are unable to grow in the absence of exogenous glutamine [46, 47]. This metabolic characteristic of cells to require exogenous glutamine for growth has been termed “glutamine addiction” and has generated extensive research interest as an indicator of development of cancerous tissues [48]. In particular to the field of HP MRI, the conversion rate of glutamine to glutamate (Fig. 2) was explored in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) using a [5-13C] glutamine probe (Fig. 2) [49]. Using the ratio between [5-13C] glutamine and [5-13C] glutamate, it was demonstrated that HCC cells convert glutamine at a higher rate than normal cells supporting the notion of glutamine addiction. One important aspect of this study was the choice of [5-13C] glutamine as a probe as opposed to [1-13C] glutamine, which has a longer T1 (16.1 vs. 24.6 s at 9.4 T) [49, 50]. [5-13C] glutamine was selected because the chemical shift change obtained from [1-13C] in glutamine and glutamate is far too small, which could prevent proper identification and quantification of the peaks. This highlights the importance of understanding not only the target compound to be hyperpolarized but also the metabolic products to be detected and their resulting spectra in MR. This is further emphasized with studies that demonstrate the usefulness of [1-13C] glutamine as a source for [1-13C] glutamate in order to follow the metabolism of α-ketoglutarate to observe the metabolic state of the TCA cycle in transformed cells [51]. Furthermore, [1-13C] α-ketoglutarate has been hyperpolarized and used to visualize other metabolic events involving [1-13C] glutamate such as mutations in IDH1 expression in glioma tumors and pathways dependent on hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) [5153]. More recently, [5-13C] glutamine has been used to visualize the metabolism of liver cancer in vivo and in vitro, as well as the treatment response of prostate cancer cells in vitro [54]. Based on the promise of glutamine as a biomarker for cancer diagnosis and treatment response, extending the spin-lattice relaxation time of the [5-13C] glutamine has been researched and successfully accomplished. The facile synthesis of [5-13C-4-2H2] glutamine has been reported, and its study showed that by relying on the effect of deuterium enrichment to lessen dipolar coupling effects, the T1 of [5-13C] glutamine could be increased from approximately 15 to 30 s [55]. Visualization of real-time conversion of glutamine to glutamate in SF188 cells was achieved using this probe, demonstrating the promise of [5-13C-4-2H2] glutamine as a probe for molecular imaging of metabolic events in real time. Further investigation of this probe applied to in vivo preclinical models will lay the foundation for its clinical translational potential in the future.
Metabolism of [5-13C] glutamine to [5-13C] glutamate. a Time-dependent spectral data following conversion of [5-13C] glutamine to [5-13C] glutamate. The signals are from 13C-enriched [5-13C]glutamate at 181.5 ppm and [5-13C]glutamine at 178.5 ppm and from natural abundance 13C label in [1-13C]glutamate at 175.2 ppm and [1-13C]glutamine at 174.7 ppm. b Plot of the ratio of the signal intensities of [5-13C]glutamate/[5-13C]glutamine showing the ratio in hepatoma cells (shaded circle), cell lysate (square), and control (triangle). These results demonstrated that hepatoma cancer cells convert glutamine to glutamine at a higher rate than normal cells. Adapted with permission from ref. [49]

Dehydroascorbate as a redox sensor

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) like the hydroxyl radical, superoxide, and hydrogen peroxide have been shown to cause DNA damage and can lead to mutations that transform normal cells into cancerous cells [56]. The reduction/oxidation (redox) state, which is dependent on the balance between oxidizing equivalents like ROS and reducing cofactors, can provide insight into the physiological condition of the cell with respect to potential cancer transformations. Furthermore, the presence of ROS in tissue has been implicated to be a factor in developing resistance to radiation therapies [57]. During oxidative stress (i.e., when there is an increase in ROS), redox homeostasis is maintained by the action of antioxidant compounds, such as ascorbate (or vitamin C, VitC), which can scavenge for ROS and reduce the compounds to rid the cells of damaging agents [58]. In this process, ascorbate that is available to cells in high concentrations can be oxidized to dehydroascorbate (DHA) while reducing ROS. DHA can then be transported into the cell where DHA is reduced back to ascorbate resulting in a process of recycling ascorbate and DHA (Fig. 3) [59]. In this sense, the ratio of DHA to ascorbate can be used as a molecular marker to investigate the redox state and thus the physiological state of tissues. Additionally, conversion of DHA to ascorbate can be enzymatically catalyzed in an NADPH-dependent manner or via oxidation of glutathione (GSH) to glutathione sulfide (GSSG); thus, visualization of ascorbate/DHA metabolism offers a method for probing in vivo metabolism of NADPH as well as determination of GSSG to GSH ratio, both of which have been implicated to be indicators of oxidative stress in the cells, particularly for neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, and cancer diseases [6062]. Hyperpolarized [1-13C] DHA was successfully used in murine models to detect increased reducing capacity in prostate cancer with the purpose of developing a non-invasive, early diagnostic tool for improving selection of treatment therapies [62, 63]. DHA demonstrates a relatively long T1 at clinically relevant field strengths (>50 s at 3 T) and adequate chemical shift separation between it and its metabolic product ascorbate (δ = 3.8 ppm). Increased reduction of HP [1-13C] DHA to ascorbate was observed in tumor tissue compared to normal tissue as well as other metabolic organs (Fig. 3). This was additionally demonstrated in lymphoma cells, further supporting the potential for using DHA as a probe in living systems [64]. A following study validated these results, and the correlation between increased DHA reduction and glutathione was established in vivo, thus showing the utility of [1-13C] DHA as a molecular imaging probe to detect events that go beyond the direct metabolism of DHA [63]. Notwithstanding the potential of HP DHA as a diagnostic probe, the toxicity of DHA remains to be validated. Earlier studies on mammalian cells showed DHA toxicity starting at 10 mM, while a study carried on rats demonstrated neurological effects of DHA starting at injections of 50 mg/kg [65, 66]. However, as outlined above, successful use of DHA injections in rats and mice for hyperpolarization has been demonstrated without reported side effects on the animals. More research is needed to determine the parameters regarding the toxicity of DHA in larger animal models using pure formulations to assess its potential for clinical trials. Further work in DHA could demonstrate its applicability for the study of ROS and redox changes in model systems.
Determination of redox state by imaging of HP [1-13C] ascorbate (VitC) and [1-13C] dehydroascorbate (DHA). Oxidative stress caused by ROS (1.) can be alleviated by oxidation of ascorbate to DHA (2.), and recycling of DHA to ascorbate can occur indirectly with oxidation of glutathione (3.) or directly with oxidation of NADH (4.). The ratio of [ascorbate] to [DHA] has been successfully used in mice models as a biomarker to determine pH in vivo. Adapted with permission from ref. [62]

Other metabolic imaging probes

While the three probes discussed earlier are the most well studied in metabolic events that are characteristic of cancer cells in general, other molecules have been evaluated in their potential to be used as biomarkers. Hyperpolarized bicarbonate (H13CO3) has been successfully used to determine the pH in extracellular matrix of lymphoma tumors in mice, and a correlation between acidic environments and cancer was established [67]. The relaxation times for bicarbonate compounds at 3 T are between 34 and 50 s, which is enough time to detect the rapid conversion of H13CO3 and 13CO2 catalyzed by carbonic anhydrase [23]. The attractive feature of this probe is based on how ubiquitous acidic extracellular environments are to a wide variety of diseases; thus, HP bicarbonate has the potential for clinical translation beyond cancer research, though extensive work will be necessary to generate a preparation which will result in an adequate dose for the clinic [68, 69]. More recently, the potential of α-ketoisocaproate (KIC) as a molecular probe for in vivo detection of branched chain amino acid transaminase (BCAT) has been explored. BCAT catalyzes the conversion of KIC to leucine, and its expression has been suggested to correlate to genetic characterization of certain tumors. In a pilot study, HP α-keto-[1-13C]-isocaproate was shown to have a T1 of 100 s so its metabolism can be sensitively traced for over a minute after injection [70]. In the same study, metabolism of HP [1-13C] KIC to [1-13C] leucine by BCAT was observed in murine lymphoma tumor tissue but was absent in rat mammary adenocarcinoma with a correlation between BCAT expression and [1-13C] leucine signal detection [70]. Additionally, in the same models, [1-13C] pyruvate conversion to [1-13C] lactate and [1-13C] alanine was detected in both types of tumors. These findings show the promise of using [1-13C] KIC as a discriminative probe in addition to pyruvate in order to diagnose different types of cancer [71, 72]. Furthermore, the correlation between BCAT expression and [1-13C] leucine detection was also shown in rat brain tissue, confirming the usefulness of HP [1-13C] KIC in assessing BCAT activity in vivo [73]. Choline is another compound that has been evaluated as a molecular imaging probe since elevated choline and choline-derived metabolites have been correlated by 1H-MRS imaging to cancer in the brain, breast, colon, cervix, and prostate [7476]. Despite its potential as a global marker for cancer because of the long T1 relaxation times that can be achieved with deuterium and 15N enrichment [77, 78], HP applications of 13C enriched choline are limited due to the small change in chemical shifts of choline and choline-derived metabolites as well as its potential toxicity [16, 79, 80]. It has been shown that choline toxicity occurs at doses of 53 mg/kg in mice, although a recent study successfully detected HP 13C choline in vivo without adverse effects in rats at doses of 50 mg/kg by using atropine to prevent cholinergic intoxication [81, 82] though metabolic products have been difficult to visualize in vivo. As mentioned earlier, the usefulness of glucose as a probe is limited due to the short relaxation times of all the carbons present in the molecule and although the T1’s can be increased through deuterium enrichment, the lifetime of the probe remains a hurdle for clinical applications [27, 28]. Thus, fructose (a pentose analog of glucose) has been successfully used as an alternative to probe glycolytic pathways [83] in TRAMP models where differences in HP [2-13C] fructose uptake and metabolism was visualized in tumor regions compared to surrounding normal tissues. Like choline, the limiting factor in the usefulness of [2-13C] fructose for in vivo studies is in small chemical shifts between the metabolite and its phosphorylated product. Finally, tumor necrosis can be used as a measure of treatment response, particularly early necrosis. HP [1,4-,13C] malate has been visualized in lymphoma mice models after injection of HP [1,4-13C] fumarate [84]. In normal cells, fumarate has a slow rate of transport into the mitochondria; however, in necrotic cells where the mitochondrial membrane is degraded, fumarase has access to the HP fumarate and its ubiquitous cofactor, water, thus facilitating rapid conversion to malate. Preliminary studies have shown the potential for its use in animal models though further work is required to determine the necessary density of necrotic cells for detection and the timings required for adequate visualization in patients.


The application of hyperpolarized 13C imaging has been extensively investigated in preclinical models, and the successful demonstration of HP [1-13C] pyruvate in patients with prostate cancer has validated the potential of HP MRI as a safe diagnostic and treatment assessment tool. Application of other probes beyond pyruvate is still in its infancy, particularly because of the need to further study the currently developed models under conditions that are relevant to a clinical setting (i.e., lower magnetic fields) as well as to study the necessary parameters (probe toxicity dose limits, safety limits for rapid injection) to withstand the necessary hurdles to translation. Nevertheless, these vast research findings are promising and indicate an eventual translation to humans. Furthermore, there is a large variety of biologically relevant molecules that have the potential to be hyperpolarized (Fig. 4), and molecular imaging of metabolic events in real time using not only one single probe but a combination of relevant probes could become an invaluable tool in elucidating so far undiscovered metabolic and proteomic interactions that play a role in cancer development and treatment. This gives HP MRI the great potential to revolutionize current molecular imaging technologies.
Metabolic pathways with compounds that can be used as molecular imaging probes for HP MRI. A wide variety of metabolic pathways have already been visualized or have the potential to be visualized using hyperpolarization technology that can be applied to different pathological states of the cell including cardiovascular disease and a large variety of cancers. 1. Metabolism of C1 (red dots) in pyruvate. Theasterisks on selected compounds represent enrichment of 13C in the second pass of pyruvate in TCA cycle. 2. Metabolism of C1 (brown dots) in DHA using a pool of NADPH derived from the pentose phosphate pathway. 3. Metabolism of C1 (blue dots) and C5 (green dots) of glutamine. 4. Metabolism of C1 and C4 (purple dots) of fumarate unrelated to TCA metabolites. 5. Metabolism of extracellular bicarbonate (gray dots). MTC1 monocarboxylate transporter 1, MTC4 monocarboxylate transporter 4,System ASC amino acid transporter, GLUTs glucose transporters, DCT dicarboxylate transporter, DHARdehydroascorbate reductase, GR glutathione reductase, GSH glutathione, GSSG glutathione disulfide,LDH lactate dehydrogenase, ALT alanine transaminase, CA carbonic anhydrase, PC pyruvate carboxylase,PDH pyruvate dehydrogenase, CS citrate synthase, GLS glutaminase, GLDH glutamate dehydrogenase,IDH isocitrate dehydrogenase, OGDC oxoglutarate dehydrogenase complex, SCS succinyl CoA synthetase, SQR succinate dehydrogenase, FH fumarate hydratase, MDH malate dehydrogenase, FUMfumarase. Cofactors have been omitted for brevity


ALT:   alanine transaminase;   BCAT:  branched chain amino acid transaminase;   DHA:  dehydroascorbate;   DNP:  dynamic nuclear polarization;   EDTA:  ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid;   GSH:  glutathione;   GSSG:   glutathione sulfide;   HCC:  hepatocellular carcinoma;   HIF:  hypoxia-inducible factor;   HP:  hyperpolarized/hyperpolarization;   IDH:  isocitrate dehydrogenase;   KIC:  ketoisocaproate;   LDH:  lactate dehydrogenase;   MR: magnetic resonance;   MRI:  Magnetic resonance imaging;   MRS:  magnetic resonance spectroscopy;   NAD(H):  nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide;   NADP(H):  nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate;   PET:  positron emission tomography;   ROS:  reactive oxygen species;   SPECT:  single-photon emission computed tomography;   TRAMP:  transgenic adenocarcinoma of mouse prostate


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sjwilliamspa commented on Is the Warburg effect an effect of deregulated space occupancy of methylome?

Is the Warburg effect an effect of deregulated space occupancy of methylome? Larry H. Bernstein and Radoslav Bozov, …

It would be an interesting figure, although I am not sure anyone has been able to measure it, is the spatial distribution of lactate and pyruvate over the tumor as a function of diffusion distance such as a heat map to see if pyruvate and lactate levels have a gradiant over a solid tumor. I am not sure it would but interesting to see where tumor cells, which undergo Warburg type metabolic phenotype actually exist, if it is a function of angiogenesis or a function of the proliferative capacity of cells in situ.

Response by LHB…

Radoslav Bozov has repeatedly referred to the real problem of space/time in the required experimental view that is intractable, as seen by Erwin Schroedinger.  It is confounded by
the restrictions imposed by research, and to an extent also the dilemma of location and velocity.

I think it is to an extent also inherent in the modern revelations of autophagy and apoptosis that were not part of the view in the mid 20th century.  However, the work of B. Chance led to a substantially better understanding of the hydride transfer in the NAD/NADH.  What is overlooked is the important role cited by NO Kaplan of NADPH/NADP vs NADH/NAD associated with synthetic and, alternatively, catabolic processes in the cell. What role the pyridine nucleotide transhydrogenase would play is anyones guess.   In any case the proliferation of malignant cells is dependent on NADPH.  This would limit the NAD/NADH related reactions. The effect in the cytoplasm is PYR –> LAC, with generation of NAD from NADH.  In addition, the type of isoenzyme favored should be consequential.  For instance, the M-type LDH does not form an abortive ternary complex LDH*NAD+*PYR. In addition, Bernstein, Everse and Grisham showed that in cancer there is an aberrant cytoplasmic MDH.


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Sleep apnea insular glutamate and GABA levels

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Sleep Apnea Takes a Toll on Brain Function



One in 15 adults has moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which a person’s breathing is frequently interrupted during sleep — as many as 30 times per hour.

People with sleep apnea also often report problems with thinking such as poor concentration, difficulty with memory and decision-making, depression, and stress.

According to new research from the UCLA School of Nursing,  published online in the Journal of Sleep Research,  people with sleep apnea show significant changes in the levels of two important brain chemicals, which could be a reason that many have symptoms that impact their day-to-day lives.

UCLA researchers looked at levels of these neurotransmitters — glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, known as GABA — in a brain region called the insula, which integrates signals from higher brain regions to regulate emotion, thinking and physical functions such as blood pressure and perspiration. They found that people with sleep apnea had decreased levels of GABA and unusually high levels of glutamate.

GABA is a chemical messenger that acts as an inhibitor in the brain, which can slow things down and help to keep people calm — like a brake pedal. GABA affects mood and helps make endorphins.

Glutamate, by contrast, is like an accelerator; when glutamate levels are high, the brain is working in a state of stress, and consequently doesn’t function as effectively. High levels of glutamate can also be toxic to nerves and neurons.

“In previous studies, we’ve seen structural changes in the brain due to sleep apnea, but in this study we actually found substantial differences in these two chemicals that influence how the brain is working,” said Paul Macey, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor at the UCLA School of Nursing.

Macey said the researchers were taken aback by the differences in the GABA and glutamate levels.

“It is rare to have this size of difference in biological measures,” Macey said. “We expected an increase in the glutamate, because it is a chemical that causes damage in high doses and we have already seen brain damage from sleep apnea. What we were surprised to see was the drop in GABA. That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.”

Macey said the study’s results are, in a way, encouraging. “In contrast with damage, if something is working differently, we can potentially fix it.”

The link between sleep apnea and changes in the state of the brain is important news for clinicians, Macey said.

“What comes with sleep apnea are these changes in the brain, so in addition to prescribing continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP — a machine used to help an individual sleep easier, which is the gold standard treatment for sleep disturbance — physicians now know to pay attention to helping their patients who have these other symptoms,” Macey said. “Stress, concentration, memory loss — these are the things people want fixed.”

In future studies, the researchers hope to determine whether treating the sleep apnea — using CPAP or other methods — returns patients’ brain chemicals back to normal levels. If not, they will turn to the question of what treatments could be more effective. They are also studying the impacts of mindfulness exercises to see if they can reduce glutamate levels by calming the brain.

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Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) – an unproved supplement

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator


Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) 

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (henceforth PQQ) is a small quinone molecule which has the ability to be a REDOX agent, capable of reducing oxidants (an antioxidant effect) and then being recycled by glutathione back into an active form. It appears to be quite stable as it can undergo several thousand cycles before being used up, and it is novel since it associates with protein structures inside the cell (some antioxidants, mostly notably carotenoids like β-carotene and Astaxanthin, are located at specific areas of a cell where they exert proportionally more antioxidant effects due to proximity; PQQ seems to do this near proteins like carotenoids do so at the cell membrane).

The aforementioned REDOX functions can alter protein function and signaling pathways, and while there is a lot of promising in vitro (outside of a living model) research on what it could do there are only a few promising results of PQQ supplementation, mostly related to either altering some signaling pathways or via its benefits to mitochondria (producing more of them and increasing their efficiency).

It is a coenzyme in bacteria (so, to bacteria, this would be something like a B-vitamin) but this role does not appear to extend to humans. Since this does not extend to humans, the designation of PQQ as a vitamin compound has fallen through and it is only considered ‘vitamin-like’ at best.

PQQ seems to modify oxidation in a cell after binding to some proteins, and this modulatory role it plays can alter the signalling processes that go on in a cell. Due to PQQ being a REDOX agent (capable of both reducing and oxidizing) it is not a pure antioxidant, but it is involved in a cyclical antioxidative cycle with an antioxidant enzyme known as glutathione

For human evidence, the limited evidence we have right now suggests a possible neuroprotective role in the aged (no research in clinical situations of neurodegeneration nor in youth) and it may have an antiinflammatory role. This limited evidence also suggests that the main claim of PQQ, an enhancement of mitochondrial function, occurs in otherwise healthy humans given PQQ supplementation.

The animal evidence that might apply to humans (using oral supplementation at doses similar to what humans use) include a radioprotective effect, possible benefits to insulin resistance, and being a growth factor when PQQ is added to the diet over a long period of time. Higher than normal oral doses in rodents seem to also enhance peripheral neurogenesis (nerve growth outside of the brain) but not necessarily in the brain.

A large amount of the evidence for a direct antioxidant role or the neurological actions related to NMDA signalling of PQQ seem to use very high concentrations in cells, due to possible transportation issues to the brain and low concentrations of PQQ found in the blood following oral ingestion.

It holds a potential to modify signalling in humans, and although the oxidation in the blood (easiest thing to measure) in mostly unaffected it also retains the potential to act as an intracellular antioxidant. The enhancement of mitochondrial function may also occur, but beyond some alterations in signalling and the mitochondrial biogenesis most other properties of PQQ are unlikely to extend to humans.

  1. Sources and Structure

1.1. Sources

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) is a quinone molecule that was first identified as an enzymatic cofactor in bacteria, acting as a prosthetic group similar to how B-vitamins work in humans.[1] It is doubtful that PQQ is an enzymatic cofactor in humans, although it still appears to have affinity to proteins in the human body and can bind to them to confer biolgical effects. The proteins that seem to bind to PQQ are called quinoproteins,[2] and via modifying their actions in the body PQQ can exert biological activity.

PQQ was once thought to be a novel vitamin compound, although this view has since had doubts cast upon it and is no longer seen as accurate. Despite the lack of a vitamin role in mammals, it does appear to have growth promoting properties in rodents and may be active in humans following supplementation

PQQ naturally occurs in most foods (in miniscule amounts) although the highest levels can be found in:

  • Fermented Soybeans products such as Nattō (highest estimate of 61+/-31 ng/g wet weight,[3] lower estimates in the range of 1.42 +/- 0.32ng/g[4])
  • Green Soybeans (9.26+/-3.82ng/g wet weight)[3]
  • Spinach (7.02 +/- 2.17ng/g fresh weight)[4]
  • Rape blossoms (blossoms of the brassica napus plant at 5.44 +/- 0.8ng/g fresh weight)[4]
  • Field Mustard (5.54 +/-1.50ng/g fresh weight)[4]
  • Tofu (24.4+/-12.5ng/g wet weight)[3]
  • Teas from Camellia Sinensis, aka Green Tea (around 30ng/g dry weight of leaves)[3] with the lower range of estimates at 0.16 +/- 0.05[4]
  • Green peppers, Parsely, and Kiwi fruits (around 30ng/g wet weight or so)[3] although some estimates are lower (2.12 +/- 0.40ng/g for green peppers)[4]
  • Human Breast milk at 140-180ng/mL (total PQQ and IPQ)[5]

Overall content of PQQ in foods seems to range from 0.19-7.02ng/g fresh weight in one study[4] up to 3.7-61ng/g in another,[3] low numbers may not adequately reflect total content in foods due to excluding IPQ in the measurements whereas higher levels tend to include both PQQ and IPQ.[5]

PQQ is present in a wide variety of foods, but currently the estimates of its contents are quite variable. This may be due to confusion as to whether solely PQQ should be counted or PQQ conjugates (it is not known if these confer dietary benefit). In general, the PQQ content of food products listed above is substantially lower than the content of supplemented PQQ (10-20mg) and food ingestion is unlikely to replicate the effects of supplementation due to the magnitude of difference

It should be noted that due to an affinity of PQQ to bind to amino acids and form imidazolopyrroloquinoline derivatives that the PQQ content of foods may not be the same as the total bioactive amounts of PQQ,[6] probably due to rapid association with proteins forming amino acid conjugates (Imidazolopyrroloquinoline, or IPQ).[7] Human milk, for example, contained 15% PQQ and 85% IPQ derivatives. That being said, no direct studies have been undertaken to see whether PQQ and IPQ have similar or different properties in vivo.

PQQ may form conjugates with dietary protein similar to how it is known to react with proteins in the body, but it is not known if this potential interaction with dietary protein is beneficial or negatively influences bioavailability

1.2. Structure and Properties

Pyrroloquinoline quinone is heat-stable and water soluble,[1] and appears to be stable at ambient temperatures in the form of PQQ disodium salt either as trihydrate (12.7% water[8]) or pentahydrate (22.9% water[9]). It is thought to be a relatively stable REDOX factor in vivo, and is able to carry generally around 20,000 REDOX reactions before degradation,[10][11] and when it carries out REDOX reactions by itself it gets converted into its reduced form known as pyrroloquinoline dihydroquinone (PQQH2)[12] and is replenished (back to the PQQ form) by glutathione.[12]

PQQ binds to proteins via forming a schiff base, which is a spontaneous (no enzyme required) reaction to amino acids found in the protein structures such as lysine.[13] The binding of PQQ to proteins uses the carbonyl groups (C=O),[14]including the three carboxylic groups opposite of the two ketones used in REDOX reactions.

Pyrroloquinline quinone (PQQ) is a quinone structure with three carboxylic acid groups which are used to bind to proteins, and two ketone groups which are involved in the REDOX capacities of the molecule

In some in vitro studies, combining PQQ with reducing agents (SIN-1, sodium borohydride) can form a green precipitate[15] and the reddish coloration of PQQ turns increasing brown when water content is removed.[8]

PQQ (as a powder) appears to be able to change color depending on its hydration status and oxidation status

1.3. Biological Significance

PQQ was initially thought to be synthesized via the α-amino adipic acid-Δ-semialdehyde (AASDH; also known as U26) enzyme[16] although this seems to be incorrect[17][18] since despite this protein having many PQQ binding sites[19] its mRNA levels are not negatively regulated by PQQ levels[20] which would most likely occur if the enzyme synthesized PQQ. It is known to be synthesized (in bacteria) from the amino acids L-Tyrosine and glutamate[21][22] in a process requiring a series of enzymes labelled PqqA-F where PqqA formed the peptide precursor and the other enzymes structurally modify it into active PQQ.[23]

Although mammalian synthesis is not certain, PQQ does occur normally in the mammalian body[24] and approxiamtely 100-400 nanograms of PQQ are thought to be made in humans each day;[3][25] leading some authors to claim an estimated tissue concentration of approximately 0.8−5.9ng/g in humans.[3]

Since complete deprivation from the diet of animals has been shown to hinder growth and reproductive performance,[26][7] it was initially thought that this (paired with the initial guess of endogenous synthesis via AASDH) indicated a vitamin deficiency. However, due to the definition of vitamins being one that requires a disease state to occur during deficiency[16] and no apparent dysfunction aside from impaired growth seen with PQQ deficeincy it was not classified as an essential vitamin;[17] this claim of no vitamin-like property being supported by the idea that AASDH is not actually used for PQQ sythesis in humans.[17][18]

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) is known to occur in both the diet and in mammalian tissue, and appears to have biological activity in the body. It was initially thought to be a new vitamin, but this conclusion seems unlikely and it is more likely a bioactive non-vitamin compound.

PQQ has been investigated for being a growth factor in youth (since deprivation in rats impairs growth[26][7]), secondary to its effects at improving mitochondrial biogenesis (making more mitochondria) at seemingly effective doses of 0.2-0.3mg/kg foodstuff (in mice),[27] which is surprisingly close to the levels found in human breast milk.[5] Preliminary evidence for mitochondrial efficacy has also been noted in adult humans given 0.075-0.3mg/kg daily,[28] with the latter dose being close to the recommended 20mg serving for a 150lb adult.

PQQ is thought to be a non-vitamin growth factor, in part due to its naturally high levels in breast milk and reduced growth in rats without dietary PQQ. It may do so via beneficially influencing mitochondrial function

It is seen as a novel REDOX catalyzing agent due to its stability, which prevents most self-oxidation (seen in catechins) and polymerization (tannins).[10] A case has been made that PQQs effects are constant between species and bacteria, which aims to validate extrapolation from one species to humans.[10] The potency of PQQ and its quinoproteins in REDOX cycling appears to be approximately 100-fold greater than Vitamin C or other polyphenolic compounds, when in alkaline conditions.[25][29][30]

PQQ, after associating with proteins (not in the role of a cofactor) appears to be capable of REDOX cycling suggesting that it can have conditional prooxidant and antioxidant roles. The association with proteins suggests that it can modify their structures either directly or via modifying the levels of oxidation at the level of the protein (similar to how carotenoids such as Astaxanthin are located at the cellular membrane which localizes their effects)

  1. Molecular Targets

2.1. Enzymatic Cofactor

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) was discovered in 1979 as an enymatic cofactor in bacteria;[31] preliminary evidence in pig kidneys and adrenal glands suggested a similar role in mammals.[32][33][34][35] Doubts were later cast upon the role of PQQ as a mammalian enzymatic cofactor,[36][37][38] and currently the consensus is that PQQ is unlikely to be an enzymatic cofactor in humans as it is in bacteria and plants.

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) was first discovered as a bacterial enzymatic cofactor (being required by bacterial enzymes to function properly) and preliminary evidence suggested it could play the same role in mammals, which would make PQQ a vitamin. But further study found no quality evidence supporting this role in mammals; it is currently believed that PQQ does not act as an enzymatic cofactor in humans

2.2. REDOX Signalling

REDOX (REDuction OXidation) signalling refers to stimulation or inhibition of cellular signalling systems by molecules that can switch from an oxidized state to a reduced state, such as the well-known REDOX-acting supplements Vitamin C andAlpha-Lipoic Acid.[39] Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) may have this property as well, although its primary mode of action seems to be acting on known REDOX proteins in the cell; this is in line with its high binding affinity for some proteins, despite not acting as their coenzyme.[40][21] For example, PQQ may function as a mammalian growth factor via signal transduction modification by both oxidation and redox cycling[41], and has been shown to improve insulin signalling in mice by redox cycling.[42]

PQQ may have an indirect influence on REDOX signalling in a cell by modifying the actions of proteins, which may underlie some antioxidative (and prooxidative) changes in a cell similar to any other REDOX agent

2.3. Thioredoxin Reductase 1

PQQ has been noted to partially inhibit thioredoxin reductase 1 (TrxR1), which is an enzyme in the cytosol that reducesthioredoxin.[43] PQQ has low potency yet high affinity in binding to TrxR1 and seems to outcompete thioredoxin binding.[44] When PQQ binds to TrxR1, the enzyme’s activity is modified so it acts more on an alternate substrate known as juglone.[45] Overall, NADPH oxidase activity of TrxR1 (a measure of the activity of this enzyme) is increased in the presence of 10-50µM PQQ due to increased activity of the TrxR1-Juglone interaction.[45]

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) binds to an antioxidant enzyme (TrxR1) and alters its function, reducing its affinity towards its normal substrate and increasing its affinity towards an alternate substrate. Overall activity of this enzyme appears to be enhanced at high concentrations of PQQ, but the effect of more physiologically realistic (nanomolar) concentrations are not known

Inhibition of TrxR1 activity is known to cause an increase in the activity of the Nrf2 protein, which acts on the nucleus (via the antioxidant response element or ARE) to increase antioxidant gene expression.[46][47][48] Since oral supplementation of PQQ appears to influence a large amount of genes under control of TrxR1-related transcripts[49] it is thought that TrxR1 inhibition by PQQ occurs in vivo.[49]

It is thought that PQQ inhibits thioredoxin reductase (TrxR1) when ingested orally, since genes that would normally be activated when TrxR1 is inhibited do seem to be activated with PQQ in rats

2.4. Glutathione Reductase

PQQ has also been shown to inhibit glutathione reductase, but despite a decreased KM towards juglone (which would increase NAPDH oxidation and enzyme activity) the Kcat was also reduced and enzyme activity remains similar with or without PQQ.[45] However, GSSG reduction with 5µM PQQ was reduced approximately 2-fold relative to control.[45]

An inhibitory effect has been noted in regards to glutathione reductase as well, although the practical significance of this particular enzyme interaction is not known

2.5. Mitochondrial Biogenesis

In rats, PQQ depletion is known to influence genetic expression (238 out of 10,000 tested genes) and dietary repletion is known to influence 847 transcripts;[49] of these, the major pathways affected include Thioredoxin and MAPK signalling but also PGC-1α, a positive regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis[50]).[49] PQQ activates PGC-1α via CREB phosphorylation[51]and appears to positively regulate mitochondrial biogenesis in vivo. It also has other possible roles in blood pressure regulation, cellular cholesterol homeostasis, energy production, and protection of mitochondrial activity, all of which are beneficially associated with increased PGC-1α activity[10][50]).

When studies are undertaken in rats comparing a PQQ deficient diet, in which the rats must rely solely on de novobiogenesis of PQQ) against PQQ sufficient diets, the PQQ supplemented diets tend to promote up to 20-30% more mitochondria in the liver (on a mass basis, as assessed by mtDNA) over the rats’ lifetime.[27][26][10][52][7][49][51] Decreased permeability of the mitochondrial membrane has also been noted without alterations in functional capacity or mitochondrial size,[26] along with the mitochondrial count per cell increasing 60% from 56.8+/-7.8 to 91+/-6.6 with 2mg/kg PQQ fed by gavage starting from 2 weeks of age in rats on a PQQ deficient diet.[26]

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) appears to be capable to increasing the activity of PGC-1α, which then promotes mitochondrial proliferation and membrane stabilization. This occurs in rats using oral doses similar to those in humans, and occurs secondary to CREB phosphoylation; this may suggest bioenergetic benefits of supplementation, but human evidence does not yet exist

When humans supplement PQQ (0.075-0.3mg/kg for one week at a time for each dose), urinary lactate decreased by 15% along with a reduction in urinary pyruvic acid.[28] A minor reduction of fumarate was noted, but other Kreb’s cycle intermediates (Isoaconitate, Citric acid, 2-oxoglutarate, and succinate) were not altered in the urine.[28] It was hypothesized, on the assumption that urinary metabolites reflect cellular energy status, that this indicated an increase in mitochondrial efficiency.[53][54]

A nonsignificant decreasing trend in urinary 4-hydroxyphenylacetate was noted with PQQ;[28] decreases in this and other urinary metabolites tend to suggest increased β-oxidation rates.[55]

The currently lone human study using doses of PQQ commonly found in supplements suggest that supplementation may increase mitochondrial efficiency

2.6. PTP1B

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) is known to enhance signalling of some MAPK proteins, most notably ERK1/2, to significant extents, rivalling its effects on thioredoxin and PGC-1α.[49][56] This may be secondary to oxidative changes on the PTP1B protein; the changes occur when PQQ facilitates the production of hydrogen peroxide by associating with other proteins[57]) within a cell via direct REDOX cycling.[41] Hydrogen peroxide then modifies PTP1B on Cys-215.[58] The change of Cys-215 from a sulfenic acid moiety (-SOH) into a more oxidized sulfinic acid (–SO2H) or sulfonic acid (–SO3H) causes reversible inhibition of PTP1B.[59][60]

PTP1B is a negative regulator of the insulin receptor,[61] and is also a negative regulator of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR).[58] By alleviating a negative inhibition, PQQ (via H2O2) can enhance signalling through the EGFR resulting in more ERK1/2 activation.

By acting as a direct REDOX couple, PQQ can inhibit PTP1B activity via hydrogen peroxide production within a cell. This inhibition of PTP1B enhances growth factor signalling (via EGFR signalling) and can enhance insulin sensitivity in a cell (by enhancing insulin receptor signalling)

  1. Pharmacology

3.1. Absorption

PQQ is absorbed well in the intestines, but its absorption is highly variable; 62% of PQQ is absorbed on average in rats in a fed state, with a range from 19-89%.[62]

3.2. Serum

A single dose (0.2mg/kg) of PQQ ingested by humans in a fruit-flavored drink has a tmax of about two hours and a Cmax of approximately 9nM.[28] Doubling PQQ dose from 0.075mg/kg PQQ daily for one week to 0.15mg/kg and then 0.3mg/kg in healthy subjects increased plasma PQQ levels in a linear manner. Fasting blood levels of PQQ ranged from 2 to 14nM when measurements were taken on day four of supplementation.[28] These levels may be similar to the steady state values as they were measured after the fourth day of dosing on the morning after PQQ was ingested.[28]

Daily supplementation of pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) appears to increase plasma PQQ concentrations to a steady state level of around 10nM in humans

3.3. Distribution

PQQ appears to be eliminated from mice 24 hours after ingestion except in the skin and kidneys, which retain detectable levels of PQQ following oral ingestion.[62] In the skin, it was noted that 0.3% of the ingested dose was detectable six hours following a dose and 1.3% of the oral dose was detected after 24 hours. Greater than 95% of the PQQ in the blood seems to be associated with the blood cell fraction, with less than 5% remaining in the plasma fraction.[62]

3.4. Elimination

86% of an ingested dose of PQQ in mice appears to be eliminated via the kidneys within 24 hours of oral ingestion[62] and is excreted in a manner directly correlated with serum levels in humans;[28] in humans, less than 0.1% of the ingested dose is detected as unmodified PQQ, suggesting that PQQ is highly metabolized prior to elimination.[28]

3.5. Mineral Bioaccumulation

Pyrroloquinoline quinone has been noted to bind directly to metals such as uranium. This explains the toxicity of uranium to bacteria, which depend on PQQ as a cofactor for enzymes;[63] uranium displaces a calcium ion which is required to bind PQQ to certain enzymes in bacteria.[64][65]

Pyrroloquinoline quinone has a known affinity for some minerals, but the role of PQQ in the human body in regards to minerals is not known. It is unlikely to play a role in heavy mineral elimination due to the very low serum concentrations of PQQ

  1. Interactions with Neurology

4.1. Glutaminergic Neurotransmission

The NMDA receptor possesses a sulfhydryl REDOX modulatory site that is susceptible to oxidation[66] where oxidation suppresses NMDA signalling and reduction enhances NMDA signalling.[67][68] PQQ (50µM) does not affect basal currents through the receptor, but it can block reducing agents from enhancing signalling[69][70] in the 5-200µM range. The reduction of signalling is thought to be due to acting on the REDOX site, since PQQ can reduce excitotoxicity but fails to protect from H2O2 (which causes toxicity independent of the NMDA receptor).[71]

This mechanism is thought to underlie protective benefits of PQQ supplementation[70] seen at low concentrations of 5µM (other mechanisms require PQQ concentrations of up to 50µM in order to become appreciable).[71]

PQQ appears to have a regulatory effect on the glutamate receptor known as NMDA, by causing some oxidation of the REDOX site and preventing excess reduction from occurring it can suppress abnormal spikes in NMDA signalling; since an excess of NMDA signalling can be toxic, the result is a neuroprotective effect. This is thought to be applicable to oral supplementation due to a low concentration being required

4.2. Neuroprotection

100µM PQQ has been noted to protect cells from glutamate-induced cytotoxicity[72][73] associated with an increase in antioxidant enzyme activity, as assessed by Nrf2 and HO-1.[72] This is thought to be downstream of Akt/PI3K and GSK-3β activation,[74] of which the former is known to occur with PQQ in the 50-100µM range in vitro.[74]

PQQ also appears to prevent an increase in JNK signalling seen with NMDA-mediated toxicity, but it is not related to the protective effects on cellular survival[74] and PI3K activation cannot fully predict the protective effects of PQQ.[72]

PQQ appears to be related to an activation of PI3K/Akt signalling, which is known to cause an induction in antioxidant enzymes via Nrf2. This is thought to underlie some of the protective benefits of PQQ on cellular structure seen in vitro, but its significance to oral supplementation is not known

Protective effects against glutamate have been noted when PQQ is directly injected into the brain in a manner that is associated with the aforementioned antioxidant effects (PI3K activation and Nrf2/HO-1 induction).[73]

Injections of PQQ into the brain are known to be neuroprotective, but it is not known if this applies to oral ingestion as well

4.3. Neurogenesis

In fibroblastic cells (L-M), incubation of PQQ disodium salt (approximately 100µg/mL) for 24 hours has resulted in a peak 40-fold increase in Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) synthesis, with minor (around 5 to 10-fold) increases at 10-20µg/mL[75][76]in a manner dependent on COX2 induction[77] and PI3K/Akt.[78] Prostaglandins D2 and E2 (from Arachidonic acid) have been reported in vitro,[77] and while they were not tested as a mandatory intermediate the former (and its metabolite prostaglandin J2) are known to promote NGF synthesis in the 6.3-25µg/mL range[77] via CHRT2[79] extending to a variety of cell lines.[80][81][82]

This increase in NGF synthesis has also been noted in isolated mouse astrocytes exceeding Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA) in potency, but less than ALA in c/3T3 (embyotic fibroblast) cells.[83]

When tested in vitro, PQQ appears to concentration-dependently increase NGF synthesis up to a peak efficacy at 100µg/mL. The increase noted in isolated cells appears to be quite large. Eicosanoid signalling appears to be involved in this phenomena, suggesting that PQQ works via manipulating the actions of eicosanoids

When fat-soluble derivatives were tested (PQQ trimethyl esters) at injections of 0.1-1mg/kg every other day, it was noted that peripheral sciatic nerves had enhanced regeneration;[75] injections into the periphery failed to cause an increase in NGF in the neocortex, thought to be due to poor diffusion of PQQ across the blood brain barrier due to complexation with proteins in serum.[75] A pharmaceutical modification of the PQQ enzyme (oxapyrroloquinoline; OPQ) was able to enhance brain NGF concentrations,[75] and since OPQ is known to be metabolized into PQQ in bacteria (hypothesized to occur in rodents) and is fat soluble it was thought to act as a prodrug.

When tested later, PQQ added to silicon tubes confirmed an increase in the rate of physical recovery in a mouse model of physical nerve injury with benefits seen after four weeks extending to twelve weeks.[84] This improvement was associated with an increase in well-myelinated neurons.[84]

In a spinal cord injury model, 5mg/kg PQQ injected into the spine daily for a week after injury was able to suppress the expression of iNOS after one day (a biomarker for inflammation[85][86]) and improved both locomotor performance and neuronal health (axonal density) in the area relative to control.[87] Benefits to peripheral nerve function (in a rat model of sciatic nerve injury) have been noted orally; a low dose (20mg/kg) prevented hyperalgesia from the nerve injury while only the higher dose (40mg/kg) prevented muscular atrophy and lipid peroxidation.[88]

The enhancement of neurogenesis has been noted in the periphery (tissue excluding the brain) with injections of low doses of PQQ, but an increase in neurogenesis in the brain has failed to be noted which is thought to be due to transportation issues to the brain. While there are no oral studies in rodents yet, PQQ has been noted to enhance peripheral neurogenesis following nerve injuries

4.4. Neurooxidation

As mentioned in the glutaminergic section, the oxidative effects of PQQ on the NMDA modulatory site[69][70] can ultimately cause a reduction in NMDA-induced superoxide formation in the neuron[71] at concentrations (5uM) that do not affect oxidation per se (no effect against hydrogen peroxide which circumvents the receptor).[71]

The anti-glutaminergic effects that occur at lower concentrations may also ultimately cause anti-oxidative effects by suppressing NMDA signalling, despite this mechanism being reliant on the pro-oxidant effects of PQQ

PQQ does not appear to influence the toxicity of peroxynitrate (a combination of nitric oxide and the superoxide radical), despite inhibiting its formation.[89] When using SIN-1 as a way to produce peroxynitrate and induce cell death in vitro, PQQ at 100uM abolished cell death prior to peroxynitrate formation with an EC50 of 15+/-8.4uM, yet actually potentiated pre-existing peroxynitrate toxicity (also seen with superoxide dismutase, an anti-oxidant enzyme, when catalase was not present).[15] The mechanism appears to be through sequestering the superoxide radical without significantly influencing nitric oxide, as PQQ does not appear to modify many parameters of nitric oxide or peroxynitrate per se yet potentiated a SIN-1 induction of cGMP and production of nitrate, theoretically caused by a backlog of nitric oxide that could not convert to peroxynitrate due to less free superoxide radicals.[15] Interactions with PQQ and superoxide radicals has been noted previously.[90][91]

Can prevent superoxide radical induced cell death, but does not significantly influence nitric oxide cell death per se

4.5. Epilepsy and Convulsions

NMDA receptors are involved in the pathology of seizures (as seizures are involved with excessive NMDA signalling[92][93]) and the REDOX modulatory site that PQQ is known to interact with (suppressing high levels of activity) is further implicated[94] since seizures are associated with a high level of reducing agents in the brain[95][96] which can act upon that site to promote increased NDMA signalling;[94] it is thought that PQQ could have a therapeutic role (seen with pharmaceutical NMDA antagonist[97][98]) since by its oxidative role it hinders this particular site on NMDA receptors[69][70]and PQQ is thought to not associated with side-effects from excess suppression due to only suppressing high levels of NMDA signalling but not basal levels.

When seizures occur, they are potentiated by excessive signalling through the NMDA receptors and due to this NMDA receptor antagonists (or anything that can suppress excess signalling) are thought to be therapeutic. Since PQQ has been implicated in suppressing excess NMDA signalling, it is being investigated for anti-epileptic effects

Application of 200µM PQQ to isolated neurons undergoing epileptic activity can fully abolish such activity if induced by reducing agents (no effect on epileptic activity induced by other means),[94] supporting the role PQQ plays in epilepsy via NMDA antagonism which may occurs to limited levels at concentrations as low as 5µM.[71]

In vitro evidence support a role for PQQ, but due to quite high concentrations being used (relative to what is seen in the blood) and a hypothesized low transportation to the brain it is not sure if this will occur in a living organism following oral ingestion

4.6. Hypoxia and Stroke

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) appears to have protective effects against ischemia (assessed by infart size) when 10mg/kg is injected either 30 minutes prior to ischemia (reducing the infarct size from a 95+/-3.6% increase to 68.8+/-10.4%)[99] and is slightly less effective when injected immediately after rather than preloaded (37.6% reduction seen previously reduced to 18.5%).[99] This has been replicated elsewhere with 3-10mg/kg (70-81% protection) but not 1mg/kg was given an hour after MCAO injury.[100]

Injections of PQQ have been noted to have protective effects in rats subject to stroke, but due to high injection doses being used and the low dose being ineffective preliminary evidence does not appear to look promising for oral supplementation of PQQ in this role; oral testing, however, has not yet been conducted

4.7. Brain Injury

Injections (intraperitoneal) of PQQ in the range of 5-10mg/kg to rats for three days prior to tramautic brain injury was able to dose-dependently protect the brain from injury with the highest dose appearing to confer absolute protection (assessed by histology and cognitive behaviour post-injury).[101]

4.8. Memory and Learning

When injected into rats at 10mg/kg bodyweight, PQQ does not appear to cause overt behavioural changes in regards to sedation, activty, or heart rate[99] with no alterations in EEG readings being observed.[99]

Several morphological changes are associated with PQQ that may confer pro-cognitive effects, such as proliferation of Schwann cells secondary to PI3K/Akt activation,[78] PQQ is also able to induce production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF)[76] secondary to COX induction;[77] increases in NGF have been observed in vivo when using trimethylesters (for permeability into the brain) with a maximal increase of 1.7-fold over baseline associated with a PQQ metabolite named oxazopyrroloquinoline.[75]

PQQ supplementation has also been associated with preventing stress-associated (oxidative stress mediated) declines in memory[102] reducing damage done by methylmercury toxicity,[103][104] and reducing memory impairment induced by a lack of oxygen;[105] at 20mg/kg bodyweight PQQ has a potency nonsignificantly different than 200mg/kg Vitamin E (as R-R-R-Alpha tocopherol) in reversing age-related memory decline in rats.[105] which, together with its neuroprotective status, assure it a position as a rehabilitative Nootropic.

Currently, one study has been conducted in humans using PQQ at 20mg daily or using PQQ at 20mg paired with 300mgCoQ10.[106] This study used the supplements once-daily at breakfast for 12 weeks in persons aged 51.7-52.3yrs with the three tests being a Verbal Memory test (seven words read aloud and then asked to recite), the Stroop Test, and the CogHealth test. The results suggested a tendency towards improvement in the Verbal memory test (nonsignificant) a significant increase in performance in the Stroop test with PQQ+CoQ10 but not PQQ in isolation, and the choice reaction and simple reactions subsets of the CogHealth test showed statistically significant improvements with PQQ and PQQ+CoQ10 but the degree of improvement was not recorded.[106]

General nootropic benefit for those with impaired cognitive function (due to age, neural damage, etc.) but does not have ample evidence to be claimed a cognition promoting nootropic in otherwise healthy. The one study conducted in humans does not claim a 50% or doubling of memory, and was not suited to answer this question

4.9. Sedation

One open-label human study conducted with 20mg PQQ for 8 weeks in 17 persons with fatigue or sleep impairing disorder noted that PQQ was able to significantly improve sleep quality, with improvements in sleep duration and quality appearing at the first testing period 4 weeks after usage while a decrease in sleep latency required 8 weeks to reach significance.[107] This study also noted improved appetite, obsession, and pain ratings that may have been secondary to improved sleep; contentness with life trended toward significance over 8 weeks but did not reach.[107]

  1. Cardiovascular Health

5.1. Cardiac Tissue

Protective effects have been noted in cardiac myocytes subject to ischemia, secondary to scavenging of peroxynitrate radicals, at injectible doses of 15mg/kg bodyweight 30 minutes prior to ischemia.[108][109] PQQ was studied alongside metprolol as a combiantion anti-oxidant/beta-blocker therapy, and 3mg/kg PQQ and 1mg/kg metprolol were both insignificantly different in reducing mortality (40% of control passed, 8% of PQQ and 14% of metprolol) while no deaths were recorded in combination therapy.[110] Combination was also more effective in reducing infarct size relative to either therapy in isolation, and both groups using PQQ had a reduction of creatine kinase release that was insignificantly different between groups.[110]

The combination therapy study noted increased cardiac mitochondrial respiration with PQQ but neither metprolol nor PQQ+metprolol, and respiration was further increased even in the contrl groups with no ischemia/reperfusion done.[110]

Secondary to the pro-mitochondrial effects and anti-oxidative effects during ischemia/reperfusion, PQQ appears to be cardioprotective under certain contexts

5.2. Atherosclerosis

In otherwise healthy humans supplementing PQQ at 0.075-0.3mg/kg for three weeks (increasing the dose each week), supplementation was associated with a decrease in C-reactive protein concentrations in serum (45%).[28] This study also noted that urinary trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) was reduced[28] and since both C-reactive protein (CRP)[111] and TMAO[112] are thought to be biomarkers for atherosclerosis PQQ is thought to have a role.

5.3. Triglycerides

In rats fed a PQQ deficient diet relative to the same diet fed with 2mg/kg PQQ, plasma diglycerides and triglycerides (DAG and TAG) were elevated 20-50% (higher value related to triglycerides) in the PQQ deficient diet relative to 2mg/kg with no significant difference in free fatty acids,[27] which is similar to levels previously seen with this experimental protocol.[26] The elevation of triglycerides in the deficient mice does not influence the n3/n6 omega fatty acid ratios.[27]

The increase seen in triglycerides may be due to this study being conducted for a long period of time, where previous research has demonstrated that PQQ deficient diets reduce mitochondrial density by 20-30%[26] and levels of mRNA for PPAR, Fatty Acid binding protein, and Acyl CoA oxidase being significantly reduced with PQQ deficiency.[27] Additionally, higher levels of beta-hydroxybutryic acid (indicative of less beta-oxidation) were seen in PQQ deficient rats. Inducing PQQ deficiency from a sufficient state can also elevate triglyceride levels to almost two-fold the previous levels, with the trend being reversed upon acute administration of PQQ in pharmacological amounts (2mg/kg bodyweight).[49]

Appears to reduce triglycerides very potently (to a greater extent than Fish Oil, empirically) in research animals relative to a PQQ deficient diet, and this is thought to be due to increased mitochondrial β-oxidation of fatty acids

The one human study to use supplemental PQQ (0.075-0.3mg/kg for three weeks in escalating doses) failed to find any significant influence on triglyceride concentrations in serum of otherwise healthy adults consuming a standard (but uncontrolled) diet.[28] This study also noted alterations in urinary metabolites (4-Hydroxyphenylacetate and 4-Hydroxyphenylactate) suggestive of an increase in mitochondrial β-oxidation despite no apparent changes in triglycerides.[28]

First study to assess the effects of PQQ on triglycerides has failed to find an influence in otherwise healthy humans

  1. Interactions with Glucose Metabolism

6.1. Glucose Deposition

PQQ (500nM) has been noted to inhibit protein tyrosine phosphatase 1B (PTP1B) secondary to producing H2O2[41] (H2O2is known to inactivate PTP1B in a reversible manner[58]), and aside from PTP1B being a negative regulator of a growth factor receptor (EGFR[58]) it also negatively influences insulin receptor signalling;[61] inhibition of PTP1B, seen also withBerberine and Ursolic Acid (albeit by different mechanisms), tends to increase the activity of the insulin receptor.

Sequestering the hydrogen peroxide made from PQQ appears to block its inhibition on PTP1B.[41]

Via prooxidative changes within a cell, PQQ can produce hydrogen peroxide which then impairs PTP1B function. Since PTP1B normally suppresses signalling via the insulin receptor, the result is a compensatory increase in insulin signalling

6.2. Serum Glucose

In young rats (before sexual maturation), PQQ either at 3mg/kg in the diet or having a PQQ deficient diet does not seem to significantly affect blood glucose or insulin levels.[27] An increased glucose AUC was seen when PQQ deficient mice were subject to an oral glucose tolerance test, but no single time point was significnatly different.[27] Injections of PQQ at 4.5mg/kg bodyweight also did not significantly influence blood sugar or insulin levels in healthy rats, but was able to significantly reduce glucose AUC (by 7%) and glucose disposition in diabetic rats fed glucose and injected with PQQ, with no effect of PQQ on fasting glucose levels in rats.[27]

6.3. Insulin resistance

It has potential for alleviating fat-induced insulin resistance (characterized by a dysregulation in beta-oxidation of the TCA cycle) by increasing mitochondrial biogenesis in muscle cells, similar to exercise.[113]

At this moment in time, nothing remarkable about PQQ and glucose metabolism

  1. Interactions with Obesity

7.1. Metabolic Rate

When comparing a rat diet deemed sufficient in dietary pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ; 2mg/kg) to a diet deficient in one, the deficient diet appeared to have a decreased metabolic rate (reaching only 90% of the control rats)[27] with the difference being more prominent during the fed rather than fasted state;[27] it appears that this decreased metabolic rate did not influence the rats of lipolysis nor glycolysis as assessed by the respiratory quotient.[27]

Depleting the rat diet of PQQ appears to reduce their metabolic rates relative to a diet with adequate levels of PQQ, but no studies have investigated whether an increase in metabolic rate occurs with extra supplemental PQQ

  1. Bone and Joint Health

8.1. Osteoclasts

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) has been noted to inhibit RANKL-induced osteclast formation in RAW 264.7 macrophage-like cells at a concentration of 10µM, which occurred at all stages of cell maturation.[114]

RANKL normally signals through the transcription factor NFATc1[115][116] via a particular AP-1 signalling protein that contains c-Fos and c-Jun.[117][118] PQQ inhibited c-Fos induction from RANKL,[114] but other RANKL-induced proteins (NF-kB and MAPKs) were unaffected suggesting that RANKL signalling overall was unaffected.[114]

There is a negative regulatory pathway from RANKL, where RANKL increases IFN-β production which signals via its receptor (IFNAR[119]) to activate STAT1 and JAK1 to suppress the actions of RANKL.[120][121] IFN-β was not affected by PQQ, but the receptor expression (and its targets) appeared to be increased which were thought to underlie the observed inhibitory effects seen with PQQ.[114]

PQQ appears to enhance the negative feedback mechanism controlling osteoclastogenesis (production of osteoclasts, which are negative regulators of bone mass) and via this enhancement overall osteoclast activity is hindered somewhat and this is thought to promote bone mass over time. Due to a higher than normal concentration being used, it is not sure if this occurs following oral supplementation

  1. Skeletal Muscle and Physical Performance

9.1. Mechanisms

One study using 0.075-0.3mg/kg PQQ supplementation daily for three weeks (increasing with dose each week) in otherwise healthy adults has noted a decrease in overall urinary amino acid levels by approximately 15%,[28] with the decrease in some (serine, asparangine, aspartic acid) being biomarkers for skeletal muscle consumption of nitrogen (via being converted into Glutamine and alanine[28][122]).

Preliminary evidence suggests that oral PQQ supplementation can influence skeletal muscle metabolism in otherwise healthy humans with standard supplemental doses, but the practical significance of this is not yet known

  1. Immunology and Inflammation

10.1. Mechanisms

PQQ appears to have some interactions with the immune system, as deprivation of PPQ from the diet (relative to a PQQ sufficient diet) appears to cause abnormal immune function in mice, with altered immune response after stressors.[52][7]

A study on parental (intravenous) nutrition found that the addition of 3mcg PQQ to the parental nutrition in mice was able to increase the count of CD8+ cells and lymphocytes in intestinal Peyer’s Patches, although not to the level of oral control.[123]

10.2. Macrophages

Application of PQQ to macrophages in vitro was able to prevent osteoclast differentiation at doses as low as 0.1uM (but more potency at 10uM) secondary to increasing IFN-β secretion; IFNβ is a negative regulator of osteoclast differentiation normally released after inflammation, and PQQ increases its release (and subsequent suppression), which is also demonstrated by increased levels of proteins induced by IFN-β (iNOS, STAT1, JAK1).[114] PQQ was found to phosphorylate NF-kB, p38, and IKKβ in these cells which is a pro-inflammatory response in macrophages.[114]

Practical relevance unknown

  1. Interactions with Oxidation

11.1. Singlet Oxygen

The reduced form of pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), known as pyrroloquinoline equinol or dihydroquinone pyrroloquinoline (PQQH2) appears to be able to sequester singlet oxygen (1O2) with a potency 6.4-fold less than β-carotene as reference yet higher than that of Vitamin E (2.2-fold) and Vitamin C (6.3-fold).[12]

PQQH2 appears to be produced (via reduction) from PQQ when in a buffer in the presence of glutathione[12] and this process is known to use the semiquinone (PQQH) as an intermediate;[57] exposure to oxygen either by ambient atmosphere or by singlet oxygen readily oxidizes PQQH2 back into PQQ.[12] This suggests that glutathione is capable of recycling PQQ as an antioxidant.

PQQ and its reduced form PQQH2 appear to form a cyclical relationship where PQQH2 sequesters oxygen radicals, and glutathione reduces it back into PQQ so it may sequester more radicals; the potency of this reaction, on a molecular level, seems intermediate to β-carotene (PQQ is lesser) and Vitamin C/E (greater)

11.2. Reactive Nitrogen Species

One study assessing whether PQQ could directly sequester peroxynitrate (ONOO) failed to find such a property of PQQ, as despite protecting cells form the toxic effects of SIN-1 (produces nitric oxide and superoxide radicals,[124] of which PQQ scavenged the superoxide radicals[15]) the toxicity of peroxynitrate directly was not protected against (in fact, it appeared to be augmented at 100-300µM PQQ).[15]

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), even at impractically high concentrations, does not appear to direct sequester reactive nitrogen species (nitrogen based pro-oxidants) such as peroxynitrate

11.3. Lipid Peroxidation

One human study using supplemental pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) and measuring serum antioxidant capacity via TBARS and TRAP values failed to find any significant influence on TRAP values but noted a decrease in TBARS (indicative of lipid peroxidation) to the degree of 0.2% when measured at peak serum PQQ values (6-12nM) seen with up to 300µg/kg supplementation;[28] this decrease in TBARS was noted to be significantly less than other dietary supplements such as procyanidins from Cocoa Extract which (560mg) can reduce TBARS by 25-35%[125] or sources of anthocyanins such as Aronia melanocarpa or Blueberry.

The decrease in serum biomarkers of lipid peroxidation that is known with PQQ supplementation is probably much too low to be indicative of anything significant

11.4. Radiation

Oral ingestion of 4mg/kg PQQ to mice (more effective than both 2mg/kg and 8mg/kg, as well as the reference drug of 10mg/kg nilestriol[126]) appears to reduce death from gamma irradiation when given an hour before and again seven days after irradiation; damage to select cells tested (white blood cells, reticulocytes, bone marrow cells) was also reduced with 4mg/kg PQQ supplementation to mice.[126]

Oral ingestion of PQQ (estimated human equivalent of 0.32mg/kg) appears to be able to protect mice from gamma irradiation to a respectable degree

  1. Peripheral Organ Systems

12.1. Liver

An intraperitoneal injection of pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) to rats at 5mg/kg twice before CCl4 liver toxicity appeared to exert protective effects;[127] when tested in vitro, PQQ showed protective effects in isolated liver cells with most potency at 3µM.[127]

12.2. Intestines

Due to the involvement of pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) in bacteria (from where it was discovered in 1979[31]) and the involvement of quinoproteins in the fermentation process [128] (which PQQ associates with) and the above higher count of PQQ recorded in fermented foods; it is hypothesized that fermentation may increase PQQ content. Interestingly, common strains of bacteria in the human intestinal tract do not appear to synthesis much PQQ[129][130] and in antibiotic fed mice (lacking intestinal microflora) it seems that dietary intake is the major determinent of bodily PQQ levels.[130]

Pyrroloquinoline quinone was thought to be synthesized by intestinal bacteria due to its discovery being that of a bacterial cofactor, but preliminary evidence does not support the intestinal microflora as a major producer of PQQ in the body

12.3. Kidney

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) was once implicated in being an enzymatic cofacter for diamine oxidase (pig kidney)[32][33]and DOPA decarboxylase (pig kidney)[34] (as well as dopamine β-hydroxylase, albeit in the renal medulla[35]), although it is generally accepted to not be a significant component of eukaryotic enzymes in vivo (in the role of a cofactor) like it is in bacterial and plant enzymes.[36][37][38] Still, it is detectable in the kidney after oral ingestion in the rat[62] and elimination of PQQ is primarily via the urine[62] suggesting it may still play a role independent of being an enzymatic cofactor.

PQQ is not thought to play a role as a cofactor of enzymes in the kidneys like initially thought, but due to being eliminated by the kidneys and accumulating in them following oral ingestion in the rat it is still thought to play a role (perhaps as a REDOX couplet, like other mechanisms)

  1. Interactions with Cancer

13.1. Leukemia

PQQ has been shown to be cytotoxic to U937 leukemia cells, but not NIH3T3 nor L929 cells, in a dose-dependent manner.[131] Catalase treatment neutralized these effects, as they appear to be secondary to hydrogen peroxide production in cells which PQQ has been repeatedly shown to induce.[132] Superoxide dismutase had no effect on PQQ cytotoxicity, while glutathione or N-AcetylCysteine increased cytotoxicity 2-5fold without affecting the cells on their own (and thus working via PQQ by increasing H2O2 production form PQQ 1.5-2fold).[131] PQQ by itself decreased intracellular glutathione levels, and when glutathione was depleted (via BSO, an inhibitor of γ-glutamylcysteine synthetase) the apoptosis of cells morphed into necrosis, and this necrosis was still mediated by H2O2 due to being inhibited by catalase.[131]

Induces cell death via H2O2, and uses glutathoine to produce even more H2O2 to augment its efficacy. A depletion of glutathione induces necrosis

13.2. Melanoma

PQQ has been implicated in reducing melanogenic (melanin producing) protein expression in cultured B16 cells, where it can inhibit tyrosinase expression and reduce gene activity[133] and can prevent stimulation of tryosinase mRNA by alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone.[134]

  1. Interactions with Medical Conditions

14.1. Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is known to be associated with what are known as Lewy Bodies (irregular cytoplasmic inclusions[135][136]) which are comprised of a molecule known as α-synuclein[137] which is known to damange dopaminergic neurons and is involved in the pathology of Parkinson’s disease when it aggregates.[138][139] It is involved in normal physiological function (as a chaperone) when unaggregated,[140] so the process of α-synuclein aggregation itself is seen as pathological.

Pyrroloquinline quinone (PQQ) is known to bind to some of these α-synuclein peptides directly via forming a schiff basewith the lysine amino acids in the peptides[13] similar to both EGCG (Green Tea Catechins) and baicalein (skullcap)[13]although baicalein seems relatively more potent.[141] This direct binding also reduces formation of truncated α-synuclein[142] (which accelerate the formation of larger aggregates[143]) and the larger protein aggregates themselves[13] by around 14.8-50% at 280µM.[142] This may indirectly reduce the cytotoxicity that is seen with large aggregates,[13] although PQQ seems to be capable of reducing cytotoxicity from pre-formed aggregates independent of the aforementioned binding.[142]

Protein aggregates tend to occur normally in the brain, and their aggregation is accelerated and seem to be central to the development of Parkinson’s Disease. PQQ appears to physically bind to these proteins in vitro to prevent the aggregation, but it occurs at a very high concentration and it does not seem likely to occur with respectable potency following oral supplementation

6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA), a metabolite of dopamine which is known to cause oxidative damage to dopaminergic neurons and detected at higher levels in persons with Parkinson’s,[144] may have its toxicity attenuated with coincubation of PQQ.[145] Oxidative neurotoxicity and DNA fragmentation induced by 6-hydroxydopamine was reduced in a concentration dependent manner with concentrations of 300nM showing efficacy, yet this protective effect was not seen with Vitamin C or Vitamin E, two other anti-oxidants tested at concentrations up to 100µM.[145]

Elsewhere in isolated neurons, the protein DJ-1 (plays roles in oxidative protection[146][147] and mutations in it underly some genetic cases of early onset Parkinson’s Disease[148]) does not have its expression altered by PQQ[149] but 15µM PQQ appeared to preserve cell survival in the presence of oxidants by preserving the actions of DJ-1;[149] excessive oxidation of DJ-1 at C106 ablates its antioxidant potential[150] and PQQ appears to prevent this from occurring despite no direct binding.[149]

There may be some protective effects at the level of dopaminergic neurons with PQQ that is not related to preventing the formation of protein aggregation, and although this happens at a much more respectable (lower) concentration it is still uncertain if this applies to oral supplementation of PQQ

14.2. Alzheimer’s Disease

Pyrroloquinline quinone appears to inhibit the formation of amyloid fibrils (Aβ1-42; full inhibition at 70μM PQQ[151]), and although it can also bind to α-synuclein this binding does not indirectly inhibit Aβ1-42 aggregation.[13]

and to reduce the cytotoxicity of these fibrils on neuronal cells.[152]

  1. Nutrient-Nutrient Interactions

15.1. Glutathione

PQQ has been shown to be cytotoxic to U937 leukemia cells, but not NIH3T3 nor L929 cells (but was observed in EL-4), in a dose-dependent manner with most significance at 20-50uM.[131] Catalase treatment neutralized these effects, as they appear to be secondary to hydrogen peroxide production in cells which PQQ has been repeatedly shown to induce.[132]Superoxide dismutase had no effect on PQQ cytotoxicity, while glutathione or N-AcetylCysteine increased cytotoxicity 2-5fold without affecting the cells on their own (and thus working via PQQ by increasing H2O2 production form PQQ 1.5-2fold).[131] PQQ by itself decreased intracellular glutathione levels, and when glutathione was depleted (via BSO, an inhibitor of γ-glutamylcysteine synthetase) the apoptosis of cells morphed into necrosis, and this necrosis was still mediated by H2O2 due to being inhibited by catalase.[131]

Glutathione can be increased by cysteine containing supplements including N-AcetylCysteine or Whey Protein

In cancer cells susceptible to PQQ’s induction of H2O2, adding glutathione to the cell by consuming Cysteine-containing supplements can augment the efficacy of PQQ

  1. Safety and Toxicology

16.1. General

PQQ has been associated with renal tubule inflammation at the dose of 11-12mg/kg bodyweight in rats after injections, and some symptoms of both renal and hepatic toxicity are seen with injections of 20mg/kg in rats.[110][153] Acute death from PQQ injections between doses of 500-1000mg/kg bodyweight has been recorded in rats.[10][153]

11-12mg/kg bodyweight, based on rudimentary body surface area conversions, is approximately 120-131mg/PQQ daily (although injections) if extrapolated to humans.

One human study using 20mg PQQ alone or in combination with 300mg CoQ10 noted that there were no toxicological signs or symptoms associated with treatment over a 12 week period,[106] and consumption of up to 0.3mg/kg PQQ (around 20mg for a 150lb person) for one week has been noted to be safe.[28]

Chronic toxicity to the kidneys and liver may be achieved at a relatively low dose, although acute death requires a very high and unpractical dose. Until more evidence surfaces, it would be prudent to avoid superloading

16.2. Genotoxicity

In an Ames test (TA1535, TA1537, TA98, and TA100 strains), 10-5000μg PQQ per plate (without metabolic activation) and 156-5000μg per plate (with activation) has failed to show appreciable genotoxic effects.[154]

In lung fibroblasts derived from chinese hamsters, 12.5-400μg/mL (no metabolic activation) and 117.2-3750μg/mL (with activation; highest concentration being 10mM) and the latter concentration in isolated lymphocytes failed to exert appreciable genotoxic effects as assessed by structural abberations and polyploidy.[154]

The aforementioned disodium salt of PQQ has failed to acutely exert genotoxic effects in mice (up to 2,000mg/kg) as assessed by a micronucleus assay and in bone marrow erythrocytes.[154]

No genotoxiticity has been noted with the disodium salt of PQQ

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Pyrroloquinoline quinone

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) was discovered by J.G. Hauge as the third redox cofactor after nicotinamide and flavin in bacteria (although he hypothesised that it was naphthoquinone).[1] Anthony and Zatman also found the unknown redox cofactor in alcohol dehydrogenase and named it methoxatin.[2] In 1979, Salisbury and colleagues[3] as well as Duine and colleagues[4] extracted this prosthetic group from methanol dehydrogenase of methylotrophs and identified its molecular structure. Adachi and colleagues identified that PQQ was also found in Acetobacter.[5]

These enzymes containing PQQ are called quinoproteins. Glucose dehydrogenase, one of the quinoproteins, is used as a glucose sensor. Subsequently, PQQ was found to stimulate growth in bacteria.[6] In addition, antioxidant and neuroprotective effects were also found.[7]

Research in animals[edit]

Mitochondrial biogenesis in mice[edit]

In 2010, researchers at the University of California at Davis released a peer-reviewed publication showing that PQQ’s critical role in growth and development stems from its unique ability to activate cell signaling pathways directly involved in cellular energy metabolism, development, and function. The study demonstrated that PQQ not only protects mouse hepatocyte mitochondria from oxidative stress—it promotes the spontaneous generation of new mitochondria within aging cells, a process known asmitochondrial biogenesis.[8]

The team of researchers at the University of California analyzed PQQ’s influence over cell signaling pathways involved in the generation of new mitochondria and found that there are three mouse proteins activated by PQQ that cause cells to undergo spontaneous mitochondrial biogenesis: peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1-alpha, cAMP response element-binding protein, and the DJ-1 protein.[8]

Cardioprotection in rat models[edit]

Damage from a heart attack, like a stroke, is inflicted via ischemic reperfusion injury. PQQ administration reduces the size of damaged areas in animal models of acute heart attack (myocardial infarction). Significantly, this occurs irrespective of whether the chemical is given before or after the ischemic event itself, suggesting that administration within the first hours of medical response may offer benefits to heart attack victims.[9]

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco investigated this potential, comparing PQQ with the beta blocker metoprolol—a standard post-MI clinical treatment. Independently, both treatments reduced the size of the damaged areas and protected against heart muscle dysfunction. When given together, the left ventricle’s pumping pressure was enhanced. The combination of PQQ with metoprolol also increased mitochondrial energy-producing functions—but the effect was modest compared with PQQ alone. Only PQQ favorably reduced lipid peroxidation. These results led the researchers to conclude that “PQQ is superior to metoprolol in protecting mitochondria from ischemia/reperfusion oxidative damage.” [10]

Subsequent research has also demonstrated that PQQ helps heart muscle cells resist acute oxidative stress by preserving and enhancing mitochondrial function.[11]

Radiation poisoning in mice[edit]

In a study of gamma radiation poisoning in mice, 4mg/kg of PQQ improved 30-day survival from 2/20 to 12/20 at an 8 Gy dose.[12]


PQQ is a neuroprotective compound that has been shown in a small number of preliminary studies to protect memory and cognition in aging animals and humans.[13][14] It has been shown to reverse cognitive impairment caused by chronic oxidative stress in animal models and improve performance on memory tests.[15] PQQ supplementation stimulates the production and release of nerve growth factors in cells that support neurons in the brain,[16] a possible mechanism for the improvement of memory function it appears to produce in aging humans and rats.

PQQ has also been shown to safeguard against the self-oxidation of the DJ-1 protein, an early step in the onset of some forms of Parkinson’s disease.[17]

PQQ protects brain cells against oxidative damage following ischemia-reperfusion injury—the inflammation and oxidative damage that result from the sudden return of blood and nutrients to tissues deprived of them by stroke.[18] Reactive nitrogen species (RNS) arise spontaneously following stroke and spinal cord injuries and impose severe stresses on damaged neurons, contributing to subsequent long-term neurological damage.[19] PQQ suppresses RNS in experimentally induced strokes,[20] and provides additional protection following spinal cord injury by blocking inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), a major source of RNS.[21]

In animal models, administration of PQQ immediately prior to induction of stroke significantly reduces the size of the damaged brain area.[22] These observations have been compounded by the observation in vivo that PQQ protects against the likelihood of severe stroke in an experimental animal model for stroke and brain hypoxia.[18]

PQQ also affects some of the brain’s neurotransmitter systems. It protects neurons by modulating the properties of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor,[23][24] and so reducing excitotoxicity—the damaging consequence of long-term overstimulation of neurons that is associated with many neurodegenerative diseases and seizures.[25][26][27][28]

PQQ also protects the brain against neurotoxicity induced by other powerful toxins, including mercury[29](a suspected factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease[30]) and oxidopamine[31] (a potent neurotoxin used by scientists to induce Parkinsonism in laboratory animals by destroying dopaminergic and noradrenergic neurons.[32])

PQQ prevents aggregation of alpha-synuclein, a protein associated with Parkinson’s disease.[33] PQQ also protects nerve cells from the toxic effects of the amyloid-beta protein linked with Alzheimer’s disease,[34]and reduces the formation of new amyloid beta aggregates.[35]


Although Nature Magazine published the 2003 paper by Kasahara and Kato which essentially stated that PQQ was a new vitamin, they also subsequently published, in 2005, an article by Chris Anthony and his colleague L.M. Fenton of the University of Southhampton which states that the 2003 Kasahara and Kato paper drew incorrect and unsubstantiated conclusions.[36] On his website,[37] Anthony discusses the Nature Magazine publications:

When I pointed out to the journal Nature that their high reputation was being used to justify investments of millions of dollars in the development of PQQ as a vitamin, they investigated the original paper, agreed with our objections and published our argument against it (Felton & Anthony, Nature Vol. 433, 2005). They also published (alongside ours) a paper by Rucker disagreeing with the conclusions of Kasahara and Kato on nutritional grounds, concluding “that insufficient information is available so far to state that PQQ uniquely performs an essential vitamin function in animals”.

Anthony further states on his website that “No mammalian PQQ-containing enzyme (quinoprotein) has been described” and that PQQ therefore cannot be called a “vitamin”. The latter statement is an exaggeration, since there is one mammalian enzyme which appears to use PQQ as a cofactor:[38]


    1. Jump up^ Hauge JG (1964). “Glucose dehydrogenase of bacterium anitratum: an enzyme with a novel prosthetic group”. J Biol Chem 239: 3630–9. PMID 14257587.
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    3. Jump up^ Salisbury SA, Forrest HS, Cruse WB, Kennard O (1979). “A novel coenzyme from bacterial primary alcohol dehydrogenases”. Nature 280 (5725): 843–4. doi:10.1038/280843a0PMID 471057.
    4. Jump up^ Westerling J, Frank J, Duine JA (1979). “The prosthetic group of methanol dehydrogenase from Hyphomicrobium X: electron spin resonance evidence for a quinone structure”. Biochem Biophys Res Commun87 (3): 719–24. doi:10.1016/0006-291X(79)92018-7PMID 222269.
    5. Jump up^ Ameyama M, Matsushita K, Ohno Y, Shinagawa E, Adachi O (1981). “Existence of a novel prosthetic group, PQQ, in membrane-bound, electron transport chain-linked, primary dehydrogenases of oxidative bacteria”.FEBS Lett 130 (2): 179–83. doi:10.1016/0014-5793(81)81114-3PMID 6793395.
    6. Jump up^ Ameyama M, Matsushita K, Shinagawa E, Hayashi M, Adachi O (1988). “Pyrroloquinoline quinone: excretion by methylotrophs and growth stimulation for microorganisms”. BioFactors 1 (1): 51–3. PMID 2855583.
    7. Jump up^ Rucker R, Chowanadisai W, Nakano M. (2009). “Potential physiological importance of pyrroloquinoline quinone”. Altern Med Rev. 14 (3): 179–83.
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    10. Jump up^ Zhu, B. -Q.; Simonis, U.; Cecchini, G.; Zhou, H. -Z.; Li, L.; Teerlink, J. R.; Karliner, J. S. (June 2006). “Comparison of pyrroloquinoline quinone and/or metoprolol on myocardial infarct size and mitochondrial damage in a rat model of ischemia/reperfusion injury”. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics 11 (2): 119–128. doi:10.1177/1074248406288757PMID 16891289.
    11. Jump up^ Tao, R; Karliner, J; Simonis, U; Zheng, J; Zhang, J; Honbo, N; Alano, C (2007). “Pyrroloquinoline quinone preserves mitochondrial function and prevents oxidative injury in adult rat cardiac myocytes”Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 363 (2): 257–62. doi:10.1016/j.bbrc.2007.08.041PMC 2844438.PMID 17880922.
    12. Jump up^ Xiong, X. H.; Zhao, Y; Ge, X; Yuan, S. J.; Wang, J. H.; Zhi, J. J.; Yang, Y. X.; Du, B. H.; Guo, W. J.; Wang, S. S.; Yang, D. X.; Zhang, W. C. (2011). “Production and radioprotective effects of pyrroloquinoline quinone”. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 12 (12): 8913–23. doi:10.3390/ijms12128913.PMC 3257108PMID 22272111.
    13. Jump up^ Takatsu, H; Owada, K; Abe, K; Nakano, M; Urano, S (2009). “Effect of vitamin E on learning and memory deficit in aged rats”. Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology 55 (5): 389–93. doi:10.3177/jnsv.55.389.PMID 19926923.
    14. Jump up^ Nakano M, Ubukata K, Yamamoto T, Yamaguchi H. (2009). “Effect of pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) on mental status of middle-aged and elderly persons”. Food Style 21 13 (7): 50–52.
    15. Jump up^ Ohwada, K.; Takeda, H.; Yamazaki, M.; Isogai, H.; Nakano, M.; Shimomura, M.; Fukui, K.; Urano, S. (January 2008). “Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) prevents cognitive deficit caused by oxidative stress in rats”. Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition 42 (1): 29–34. doi:10.3164/jcbn.2008005.PMC 2212345PMID 18231627.
    16. Jump up^ Murase, K; Hattori, A; Kohno, M; Hayashi, K (1993). “Stimulation of nerve growth factor synthesis/secretion in mouse astroglial cells by coenzymes”. Biochemistry and molecular biology international 30 (4): 615–21.PMID 8401318.
    17. Jump up^ Nunome, K; Miyazaki, S; Nakano, M; Iguchi-Ariga, S; Ariga, H (2008). “Pyrroloquinoline quinone prevents oxidative stress-induced neuronal death probably through changes in oxidative status of DJ-1”. Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin 31 (7): 1321–6. doi:10.1248/bpb.31.1321PMID 18591768.
    18. Jump up to:a b Jensen, FE; Gardner, GJ; Williams, AP; Gallop, PM; Aizenman, E; Rosenberg, PA (1994). “The putative essential nutrient pyrroloquinoline quinone is neuroprotective in a rodent model of hypoxic/ischemic brain injury”. Neuroscience 62 (2): 399–406. doi:10.1016/0306-4522(94)90375-1PMID 7830887.
    19. Jump up^ Ono, K.; Suzuki, H.; Sawada, M. (2010-10-05). “Delayed neural damage is induced by iNOS-expressing microglia in a brain injury model”. Neuroscience Letters 473 (2): 146–150. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2010.02.041.PMID 20178828.
    20. Jump up^ Zhang, Y; Rosenberg, PA (2002). “The essential nutrient pyrroloquinoline quinone may act as a neuroprotectant by suppressing peroxynitrite formation”. The European Journal of Neuroscience 16 (6): 1015–24. doi:10.1046/j.1460-9568.2002.02169.xPMID 12383230.

PQQ and Statin Damage
By Dr. Duane Graveline MD, MPH

Those of you who have been following my research during the past two years will know that I consider mitochondrial DNA damage as the ultimate result for some of statin drug intake.

Through mevalonate blockade, statins directly inhibit CoQ10 synthesis making mitochondrial damage and mutation all but inevitable. Furthermore, the inhibitory effect of statins on dolichol synthesis makes repair of DNA damage all the more difficult because of dolichol’s vital role in glycoprotein (glycohydrolase) synthesis.

Recently I have learned of another biochemical substance that also is implicated in this process of mitochondrial maintenance. The name of this biochemical is pyrroloquinoline quinone with the shorthand version being PQQ.

This substance has been discovered only in the past decade with its vital role in mitochondrial support having been documented only in the past several years. From what I have read of this substance, trying to get beyond the hype, it is worth considering for those of us who have been damaged by statins, whether by cognitive dysfunction, permanent myopathy, ALS like symptoms, or peripheral neuropathy.

Dietary sources of PQQ include many fruits and vegetables and egg yolk. Natto ( fermented soybeans ) has the highest concentration but parsley, green peppers, papaya, kiwi fruit and spinach are all good sources. PQQ is also available as a dietary supplement. Human trials and studies will need to be performed to support any claims for the benefits of PQQ supplementation.

One promotion for PQQ begins with, “The more functional mitochondria you have in your cells, the greater your overall health and durability,” which is the premise of my new e-book, The Dark Side of Statins, so my interest in this substance is obvious.

The problem is that as we age, our mitochondria degrade and become dysfunctional. Compared with nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA is left almost entirely exposed to the ravages of free radicals. It attaches directly to the inner membrane where the mitochondria’s furnace rages continuously.

Statin drugs directly hasten this process of mitochondrial DNA degradation by direct inhibition of CoQ10 and dolichol synthesis. The ultimate cause of statin associated adverse reactions is this progressive deterioration of mitochondrial DNA.  PQQ is being touted not only for its extra anti-oxidant protection in the fight against free radicals but also for its potential use for mitochondrial genesis

This is part 1 (of nine parts) of the Preventing and Reversing Alzheimer’s Disease presentation, an earlier version of which was presented to the San Francisco bay area Smart Life Forum in January of 2009. This part covers the verbal introduction and the falling-dominoes illustration of the Alzheimer’s cascade

This is part three of the Prevention and Reversal of Alzheimer’s Disease presentation. This part covers the Alzheimer’s Map (schematic), mitochondria, and creatine kinase (the first domino in the Alzheimer’s disease cascade).

This is part six of the Prevention and Reversal of Alzheimer’s Disease presentation. This part covers the antioxidant defense system, glutathione (the “star of the movie”), and the brain’s phosphorylation cycle (the brains “biorhythm).

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New Insights on the Warburg Effect [2.2]

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator, Writer


New Insights on the Warburg Effect [2.2]

Defective Mitochondria Transform Normal Cells into Tumors

GEN News Jul 9, 2015

Ninety-one years ago Otto Warburg demonstrated that cancer cells have impaired respiration, which became known as the Warburg Effect. The interest in this and related work was superceded in the last quarter of the twentieth century by work on the genetic code. Now there is renewed interest.

An international research team reports that a specific defect in mitochondria plays a key role in the transition from normal cells to cancerous ones. The scientists disrupted a key component of mitochondria of otherwise normal cells and the cells took on characteristics of malignant cells.

Their study (“Disruption of cytochrome c oxidase function induces the Warburg effect and metabolic reprogramming”) is published Oncogene and was led by members of the lab of Narayan G. Avadhani, Ph.D., the Harriet Ellison Woodward Professor of Biochemistry in the department of biomedical sciences in the school of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Satish Srinivasan, Ph.D., a research investigator in Dr. Avadhani’s lab, was the lead author.

This is consistent with the 1924 observation by Warburg that cancerous cells consumed glucose at a higher rate than normal cells (Meyerhof ratio) and had defects in their grana, the organelles that are now known as mitochondria. He postulated that these defects led to problems in the process by which the cell produces energy. But the process called oxidative phosphorylation was not yet known. Further work in his laboratory was carried out by Hans Krebs and by Albert Szent Gyorgyi elucidating the tricarboxylic acid cycle.  The discovery of the importance of cytochrome c and adenosine triphosphate in oxidative phosphorylation was made in the post World War II period by Fritz Lippman, with an important contribution by Nathan Kaplan. All of the name scientists, except Kaplan, received Nobel Prizes. The last piece of the puzzle became the demonstation of a sequence of hydrogen transfers on the electron transport chain. The researchers above have now shown that mitochondrial defects indeed contributed to the cells becoming cancerous.

“The first part of the Warburg hypothesis has held up solidly in that most proliferating tumors show high dependence on glucose as an energy source and they release large amounts of lactic acid,” said Dr. Avadhani. “But the second part, about the defective mitochondrial function causing cells to be tumorigenic, has been highly contentious.”

To see whether the second part of Warburg’s postulation was correct, the researchers took cell lines from the skeleton, kidney, breast, and esophagus and used RNA molecules to silence the expression of select components of mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase C, or CcO, a critical enzyme involved in oxidative phosphorylation. CcO uses oxygen to make water and set up a transmembrane potential that is used to synthesize ATP, the molecule used for energy by the body’s cells.

The biologists observed that disrupting only a single protein subunit of cytochrome oxidase C led to major changes in the mitochondria and in the cells themselves. “These cells showed all the characteristics of cancer cells,” noted Dr. Avadhani.

The normal cells that converted to cancerous cells displayed changes in their metabolism, becoming more reliant on glucose by utilization of the glycolytic pathway. They reduced their synthesis of ATP.  Oxidative phosphorylation was reduced in concert with the ATP reduction. The large switch to glycolysis as primary energy source is a less efficient means of making ATP that is common in cancer cells.

The cells lost contact inhibition and gained an increased ability to invade distant tissues, both hallmarks of cancer cells. When they were grown in a 3D medium, which closely mimics the natural environment in which tumors grow in the body, the cells with disrupted mitochondria formed large, long-lived colonies, akin to tumors.

The researchers also silenced cytochrome oxidase C subunits in breast and esophageal cancer cell lines. They found that the cells became even more invasive, according to Dr. Srinivasan. The team then looked at actual tumors from human patients and found that the most oxygen-starved regions, which are common in tumors, contained defective versions of CcO.

“That result alone couldn’t tell us whether that was the cause or effect of tumors, but our cell system clearly says that mitochondrial dysfunction is a driving force in tumorigenesis,” explained Dr. Avadhani.

The researchers observed that disrupting CcO triggered the mitochondria to activate a stress signal to the nucleus, akin to an SOS alerting the cell that something was wrong. Dr. Avadhani and his colleagues had previously seen a similar pathway activated in cells with depleted mitochondrial DNA, which is also linked to cancer.

Building on these findings, Dr. Avadhani and members of his lab will examine whether inhibiting components of this mitochondrial stress signaling pathway might be a strategy for preventing cancer progression.

“We are targeting the signaling pathway, developing a lot of small molecules and antibodies,” said Dr. Avadhani. “Hopefully if you block the signaling the cells will not go into the so called oncogenic mode and instead would simply die.”

In addition, they noted that looking for defects in CcO could be a biomarker for cancer screening.


Who controls the ATP supply in cancer cells? Biochemistry lessons to understand cancer energy metabolism

Rafael Moreno-Sánchez, Alvaro Marín-Hernández, Emma Saavedra, Juan P. Pardo, Stephen J. Ralph, Sara Rodríguez-Enríquez
Intl J Biochem Cell Biol 7 Feb 2014; 50:10-23

The supply of ATP in mammalian and human cells is provided by glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos). There are no other pathways or processes able to synthesize ATP at sufficient rates to meet the energy demands of cells. Acetate thiokinase or acetyl-CoA synthetase, a ubiquitous enzyme catalyzing the synthesis of ATP and acetate from acetyl-CoA, PPi and AMP, might represent an exception under hypoxia in cancer cells, although the flux through this branch is negligible (≤10%) when compared to the glycolytic flux (Yoshii et al., 2009).

Glycolysis in human cells can be defined as the metabolic process that transforms 1 mol of glucose (or other hexoses) into 2 moles of lactate plus 2 moles of ATP. These stoichiometric values represent a maximum and due to the several reactions branching off glycolysis, they will be usually lower under physiological conditions, closer to 1.3–1.9 for the lactate/glucose ratio (Travis et al., 1971; Jablonska and Bishop, 1975; Suter and Weidemann, 1975; Hanson and Parsons, 1976; Wu and Davis, 1981; Pick-Kober and Schneider, 1984; Sun et al., 2012). OxPhos is the metabolic process that oxidizes several substrates through the Krebs cycle to produce reducing equivalents (NADH, FADH2), which feed the respiratory chain to generate an H+.

Applying basic biochemical principles, this review analyzes data that contrasts with the Warburg hypothesis that glycolysis is the exclusive ATP provider in cancer cells. Although disregarded for many years, there is increasing experimental evidence demonstrating that oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos) makes a significant contribution to ATP supply in many cancer cell types and under a variety of conditions.

Substrates oxidized by normal mitochondria such as amino acids and fatty acids are also avidly consumed by cancer cells. In this regard, the proposal that cancer cells metabolize glutamine for anabolic purposes without the need for a functional respiratory chain and OxPhos is analyzed considering thermodynamic and kinetic aspects for the reductive carboxylation of 2-oxoglutarate catalyzed by isocitrate dehydrogenase.

In addition, metabolic control analysis (MCA) studies applied to energy metabolism of cancer cells are reevaluated. Regardless of the experimental/environmental conditions and the rate of lactate production, the flux-control of cancer glycolysis is robust in the sense that it involves the same steps:

  • glucose transport,
  • hexokinase,
  • hexosephosphate isomerase, and
  • glycogen degradation,

all at the beginning of the pathway; these steps together with phosphofructokinase 1 also control glycolysis in normal cells.

The respiratory chain complexes exert significantly higher flux-control on OxPhos in cancer cells than in normal cells. Thus, determination of the contribution of each pathway to ATP supply and/or the flux-control distribution of both pathways in cancer cells is necessary in order to identify differences from normal cells which may lead to the design of rational alternative therapies that selectively target cancer energy metabolism.

Fig. 1. Labeling patterns of 13C-glutamate or 13C-glutamine mitochondrial metabolism in cancer cells.

Fig. 2. Survey in PubMed of papers published in the field of tumor mitochondrial metabolism from 1951 to September 2013.


Emerging concepts in bioenergetics and cancer research: Metabolic flexibility, coupling, symbiosis, switch, oxidative tumors, metabolic remodeling, signaling and bioenergetic therapy

Emilie Obre, Rodrigue Rossignol
Intl J Biochem Cell Biol 2015; 59:167-181

The field of energy metabolism dramatically progressed in the last decade, owing to a large number of cancer studies, as well as fundamental investigations on related transcriptional networks and cellular interactions with the microenvironment. The concept of metabolic flexibility was clarified in studies showing the ability of cancer cells to remodel the biochemical pathways of energy transduction and linked anabolism in response to glucose, glutamine or oxygen deprivation.

A clearer understanding of the large scale bioenergetic impact of C-MYC, MYCN, KRAS and P53 was obtained, along with its modification during the course of tumor development. The metabolic dialog between different types of cancer cells, but also with the stroma, also complexified the understanding of bioenergetics and raised the concepts of metabolic symbiosis and reverse Warburg effect.

Signaling studies revealed the role of respiratory chain derived reactive oxygen species for metabolic remodeling and metastasis development. The discovery of oxidative tumors in human and mice models related to chemoresistance also changed the prevalent view of dysfunctional mitochondria in cancer cells. Likewise, the influence of energy metabolism-derived oncometabolites emerged as a new means of tumor genetic regulation. The knowledge obtained on the multi-site regulation of energy metabolism in tumors was translated to cancer preclinical studies, supported by genetic proof of concept studies targeting LDHA, HK2, PGAM1, or ACLY.

Here, we review those different facets of metabolic remodeling in cancer, from its diversity in physiology and pathology, to the search of the genetic determinants, the microenvironmental regulators and pharmacological modulators.


Pyruvate kinase M2: A key enzyme of the tumor metabolome and its medical relevance

Mazurek, S.
Biomedical Research 2012; 23(SPEC. ISSUE): Pages 133-142

Tumor cells are characterized by an over expression of the glycolytic pyruvate kinase isoenzyme
type M2 (abbreviations: M2-PK or PKM2). In tumor metabolism the quaternary structure of M2-PK (tetramer/dimer ratio) determines whether glucose is used for glycolytic energy regeneration (highly active tetrameric form, Warburg effect) or synthesis of cell building blocks (nearly inactive dimeric form) which are both prerequisites for cells with a high proliferation rate. In tumor cells the nearly inactive dimeric form of M2- PK is predominant due to direct interactions with different oncoproteins. Besides its key functions in tumor metabolism recent studies revealed that M2-PK may also react as protein kinase as well as co activator of transcription factors. Of medical relevance is the quantification of the dimeric form of M2-PK with either an ELISA or point of care rapid test in plasma and stool that is used for follow-up studies during therapy (plasma M2-PK) and colorectal cancer (CRC) screening (fecal M2-PK; mean sensitivity for CRC in 12 independent studies with altogether 704 samples: 80% ± 7%). An intervention in the regulation mechanisms of the expression, activity and tetramer: dimer ratio of M2-PK has significant consequences for the proliferation rate and tumorigenic capacity of the tumor cells, making this enzyme an intensively

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Hypoxia Inducible Factor 1 (HIF-1)

Writer and Curator: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP

7.9  Hypoxia Inducible Factor 1 (HIF-1)

7.9.1 Hypoxia and mitochondrial oxidative metabolism

7.9.2 Hypoxia promotes isocitrate dehydrogenase-dependent carboxylation of α-ketoglutarate to citrate to support cell growth and viability

7.9.3 Hypoxia-Inducible Factors in Physiology and Medicine

7.9.4 Hypoxia-inducible factor 1. Regulator of mitochondrial metabolism and mediator of ischemic preconditioning

7.9.5 Regulation of cancer cell metabolism by hypoxia-inducible factor 1

7.9.6 Coming up for air. HIF-1 and mitochondrial oxygen consumption

7.9.7 HIF-1 mediates adaptation to hypoxia by actively downregulating mitochondrial oxygen consumption

7.9.8 HIF-1. upstream and downstream of cancer metabolism

7.9.9 In Vivo HIF-Mediated Reductive Carboxylation

7.9.10 Evaluation of HIF-1 inhibitors as anticancer agents



7.9.1 Hypoxia and mitochondrial oxidative metabolism

Solaini G1Baracca ALenaz GSgarbi G.
Biochim Biophys Acta. 2010 Jun-Jul; 1797(6-7):1171-7

It is now clear that mitochondrial defects are associated with a large variety of clinical phenotypes. This is the result of the mitochondria’s central role in energy production, reactive oxygen species homeostasis, and cell death. These processes are interdependent and may occur under various stressing conditions, among which low oxygen levels (hypoxia) are certainly prominent. Cells exposed to hypoxia respond acutely with endogenous metabolites and proteins promptly regulating metabolic pathways, but if low oxygen levels are prolonged, cells activate adapting mechanisms, the master switch being the hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1). Activation of this factor is strictly bound to the mitochondrial function, which in turn is related with the oxygen level. Therefore in hypoxia, mitochondria act as [O2] sensors, convey signals to HIF-1directly or indirectly, and contribute to the cell redox potential, ion homeostasis, and energy production. Although over the last two decades cellular responses to low oxygen tension have been studied extensively, mechanisms underlying these functions are still indefinite. Here we review current knowledge of the mitochondrial role in hypoxia, focusing mainly on their role in cellular energy and reactive oxygen species homeostasis in relation with HIF-1 stabilization. In addition, we address the involvement of HIF-1 and the inhibitor protein of F1F0 ATPase in the hypoxia-induced mitochondrial autophagy.

Over the last two decades a defective mitochondrial function associated with hypoxia has been invoked in many diverse complex disorders, such as type 2 diabetes [1] and [2], Alzheimer’s disease [3] and [4], cardiac ischemia/reperfusion injury [5] and [6], tissue inflammation [7], and cancer [8][9][10],[11] and [12].

The [O2] in air-saturated aqueous buffer at 37 °C is approx. 200 μM [13]; however, mitochondria in vivo are exposed to a considerably lower [O2] that varies with tissue and physiological state. Under physiological conditions, most human resting cells experience some 5% oxygen tension, however the [O2] gradient occurring between the extracellular environment and mitochondria, where oxygen is consumed by cytochrome c oxidase, results in a significantly lower [O2] exposition of mitochondria. Below this oxygen level, most mammalian tissues are exposed to hypoxic conditions  [14]. These may arise in normal development, or as a consequence of pathophysiological conditions where there is a reduced oxygen supply due to a respiratory insufficiency or to a defective vasculature. Such conditions include inflammatory diseases, diabetes, ischemic disorders (cerebral or cardiovascular), and solid tumors. Mitochondria consume the greatest amount (some 85–90%) of oxygen in cells to allow oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS), which is the primary metabolic pathway for ATP production. Therefore hypoxia will hamper this metabolic pathway, and if the oxygen level is very low, insufficient ATP availability might result in cell death [15].

When cells are exposed to an atmosphere with reduced oxygen concentration, cells readily “respond” by inducing adaptive reactions for their survival through the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) pathway (see for a recent review [16]) which inter alia increases glycolysis driven by enhanced catalytic efficiency of some enzymes, including phosphofructokinase-1 and pyruvate kinase (of note, this oxidative flux is thermodynamically allowed due to both reduced phosphorylation potential [ATP]/([ADP][Pi]) and the physiological redox state of the cell). However, this is particularly efficient only in the short term, therefore cells respond to prolonged hypoxia also by stimulation of hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs: HIF-1 being the mostly studied), which are heterodimeric transcription factors composed of α and β subunits, first described by Semenza and Wang [17]. These HIFs in the presence of hypoxic oxygen levels are activated through a complex mechanism in which the oxygen tension is critical (see below). Afterwards HIFs bind to hypoxia-responsive elements, activating the transcription of more than two hundred genes that allow cells to adapt to the hypoxic environment [18] and [19].

Several excellent reviews appeared in the last few years describing the array of changes induced by oxygen deficiency in both isolated cells and animal tissues. In in vivo models, a coordinated regulation of tissue perfusion through vasoactive molecules such as nitric oxide and the action of carotid bodies rapidly respond to changes in oxygen demand [20][21][22][23] and [24]. Within isolated cells, hypoxia induces significant metabolic changes due to both variation of metabolites level and activation/inhibition of enzymes and transporters; the most important intracellular effects induced by different pathways are expertly described elsewhere (for recent reviews, see [25][26] and [27]). It is reasonable to suppose that the type of cells and both the severity and duration of hypoxia may determine which pathways are activated/depressed and their timing of onset [3][6][10][12][23] and [28]. These pathways will eventually lead to preferential translation of key proteins required for adaptation and survival to hypoxic stress. Although in the past two decades, the discovery of HIF-1 by Gregg Semenza et al. provided a molecular platform to investigate the mechanism underlying responses to oxygen deprivation, the molecular and cellular biology of hypoxia has still to be completely elucidated. This review summarizes recent experimental data concerned with mitochondrial structure and function adaptation to hypoxia and evaluates it in light of the main structural and functional parameters defining the mitochondrial bioenergetics. Since mitochondria contain an inhibitor protein, IF1, whose action on the F1F0 ATPase has been considered for decades of critical importance in hypoxia/ischemia, particular notice will be dedicated to analyze molecular aspects of IF1 regulation of the enzyme and its possible role in the metabolic changes induced by low oxygen levels in cells.

Mechanism(s) of HIF-1 activation

HIF-1 consists of an oxygen-sensitive HIF-1α subunit that heterodimerizes with the HIF-1β subunit to bind DNA. In high O2 tension, HIF-1α is oxidized (hydroxylated) by prolyl hydroxylases (PHDs) using α-ketoglutarate derived from the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. The hydroxylated HIF-1α subunit interacts with the von Hippel–Lindau protein, a critical member of an E3 ubiquitin ligase complex that polyubiquitylates HIF. This is then catabolized by proteasomes, such that HIF-1α is continuously synthesized and degraded under normoxic conditions [18]. Under hypoxia, HIF-1α hydroxylation does not occur, thereby stabilizing HIF-1 (Fig. 1). The active HIF-1 complex in turn binds to a core hypoxia response element in a wide array of genes involved in a diversity of biological processes, and directly transactivates glycolytic enzyme genes [29]. Notably, O2 concentration, multiple mitochondrial products, including the TCA cycle intermediates and reactive oxygen species, can coordinate PHD activity, HIF stabilization, hence the cellular responses to O2 depletion [30] and [31]. Incidentally, impaired TCA cycle flux, particularly if it is caused by succinate dehydrogenase dysfunction, results in decreased or loss of energy production from both the electron-transport chain and the Krebs cycle, and also in overproduction of free radicals [32]. This leads to severe early-onset neurodegeneration or, as it occurs in individuals carrying mutations in the non-catalytic subunits of the same enzyme, to tumors such as phaeochromocytoma and paraganglioma. However, impairment of the TCA cycle may be relevant also for the metabolic changes occurring in mitochondria exposed to hypoxia, since accumulation of succinate has been reported to inhibit PHDs [33]. It has to be noticed that some authors believe reactive oxygen species (ROS) to be essential to activate HIF-1 [34], but others challenge this idea [35], therefore the role of mitochondrial ROS in the regulation of HIF-1 under hypoxia is still controversial [36]. Moreover, the contribution of functional mitochondria to HIF-1 regulation has also been questioned by others [37][38] and [39].

Major mitochondrial changes in hypoxia

Major mitochondrial changes in hypoxia

Fig. 1. Major mitochondrial changes in hypoxia. Hypoxia could decrease electron-transport rate determining Δψm reduction, increased ROS generation, and enhanced NO synthase. One (or more) of these factors likely contributes to HIF stabilization, that in turn induces metabolic adaptation of both hypoxic cells and mitophagy. The decreased Δψm could also induce an active binding of IF1, which might change mitochondrial morphology and/or dynamics, and inhibit mitophagy. Solid lines indicate well established hypoxic changes in cells, whilst dotted lines indicate changes not yet stated. Inset, relationships between extracellular O2concentration and oxygen tension.

Oxygen is a major determinant of cell metabolism and gene expression, and as cellular O2 levels decrease, either during isolated hypoxia or ischemia-associated hypoxia, metabolism and gene expression profiles in the cells are significantly altered. Low oxygen reduces OXPHOS and Krebs cycle rates, and participates in the generation of nitric oxide (NO), which also contributes to decrease respiration rate [23] and [40]. However, oxygen is also central in the generation of reactive oxygen species, which can participate in cell signaling processes or can induce irreversible cellular damage and death [41].

As specified above, cells adapt to oxygen reduction by inducing active HIF, whose major effect on cells energy homeostasis is the inactivation of anabolism, activation of anaerobic glycolysis, and inhibition of the mitochondrial aerobic metabolism: the TCA cycle, and OXPHOS. Since OXPHOS supplies the majority of ATP required for cellular processes, low oxygen tension will severely reduce cell energy availability. This occurs through several mechanisms: first, reduced oxygen tension decreases the respiration rate, due first to nonsaturating substrate for cytochrome c oxidase (COX), secondarily, to allosteric modulation of COX[42]. As a consequence, the phosphorylation potential decreases, with enhancement of the glycolysis rate primarily due to allosteric increase of phosphofructokinase activity; glycolysis however is poorly efficient and produces lactate in proportion of 0.5 mol/mol ATP, which eventually drops cellular pH if cells are not well perfused, as it occurs under defective vasculature or ischemic conditions  [6]. Besides this “spontaneous” (thermodynamically-driven) shift from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism which is mediated by the kinetic changes of most enzymes, the HIF-1 factor activates transcription of genes encoding glucose transporters and glycolytic enzymes to further increase flux of reducing equivalents from glucose to lactate[43] and [44]. Second, HIF-1 coordinates two different actions on the mitochondrial phase of glucose oxidation: it activates transcription of the PDK1 gene encoding a kinase that phosphorylates and inactivates pyruvate dehydrogenase, thereby shunting away pyruvate from the mitochondria by preventing its oxidative decarboxylation to acetyl-CoA [45] and [46]. Moreover, HIF-1 induces a switch in the composition of cytochrome c oxidase from COX4-1 to COX4-2 isoform, which enhances the specific activity of the enzyme. As a result, both respiration rate and ATP level of hypoxic cells carrying the COX4-2 isoform of cytochrome c oxidase were found significantly increased with respect to the same cells carrying the COX4-1 isoform [47]. Incidentally, HIF-1 can also increase the expression of carbonic anhydrase 9, which catalyses the reversible hydration of CO2 to HCO3 and H+, therefore contributing to pH regulation.

Effects of hypoxia on mitochondrial structure and dynamics

Mitochondria form a highly dynamic tubular network, the morphology of which is regulated by frequent fission and fusion events. The fusion/fission machineries are modulated in response to changes in the metabolic conditions of the cell, therefore one should expect that hypoxia affect mitochondrial dynamics. Oxygen availability to cells decreases glucose oxidation, whereas oxygen shortage consumes glucose faster in an attempt to produce ATP via the less efficient anaerobic glycolysis to lactate (Pasteur effect). Under these conditions, mitochondria are not fueled with substrates (acetyl-CoA and O2), inducing major changes of structure, function, and dynamics (for a recent review see [48]). Concerning structure and dynamics, one of the first correlates that emerge is that impairment of mitochondrial fusion leads to mitochondrial depolarization, loss of mtDNA that may be accompanied by altered respiration rate, and impaired distribution of the mitochondria within cells [49][50] and [51]. Indeed, exposure of cortical neurons to moderate hypoxic conditions for several hours, significantly altered mitochondrial morphology, decreased mitochondrial size and reduced mitochondrial mean velocity. Since these effects were either prevented by exposing the neurons to inhibitors of nitric oxide synthase or mimicked by NO donors in normoxia, the involvement of an NO-mediated pathway was suggested [52]. Mitochondrial motility was also found inhibited and controlled locally by the [ADP]/[ATP] ratio [53]. Interestingly, the author used an original approach in which mitochondria were visualized using tetramethylrhodamineethylester and their movements were followed by applying single-particle tracking.

Of notice in this chapter is that enzymes controlling mitochondrial morphology regulators provide a platform through which cellular signals are transduced within the cell in order to affect mitochondrial function [54]. Accordingly, one might expect that besides other mitochondrial factors [30] and [55] playing roles in HIF stabilization, also mitochondrial morphology might reasonably be associated with HIF stabilization. In order to better define the mechanisms involved in the morphology changes of mitochondria and in their dynamics when cells experience hypoxic conditions, these pioneering studies should be corroborated by and extended to observations on other types of cells focusing also on single proteins involved in both mitochondrial fusion/fission and motion.

Effects of hypoxia on the respiratory chain complexes

O2 is the terminal acceptor of electrons from cytochrome c oxidase (Complex IV), which has a very high affinity for it, being the oxygen concentration for half-maximal respiratory rate at pH 7.4 approximately 0.7 µM [56]. Measurements of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation indicated that it is not dependent on oxygen concentration up to at least 20 µM at pH 7.0 and the oxygen dependence becomes markedly greater as the pH is more alkaline [56]. Similarly, Moncada et al. [57] found that the rate of O2 consumption remained constant until [O2] fell below 15 µM. Accordingly, most reports in the literature consider hypoxic conditions occurring in cells at 5–0.5% O2, a range corresponding to 46–4.6 µM O2 in the cells culture medium (see Fig. 1 inset). Since between the extracellular environment and mitochondria an oxygen pressure gradient is established [58], the O2 concentration experienced by Complex IV falls in the range affecting its kinetics, as reported above.

Under these conditions, a number of changes on the OXPHOS machinery components, mostly mediated by HIF-1 have been found. Thus, Semenza et al. [59] and others thereafter [46] reported that activation of HIF-1α induces pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase, which inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase, suggesting that respiration is decreased by substrate limitation. Besides, other HIF-1 dependent mechanisms capable to affect respiration rate have been reported. First, the subunit composition of COX is altered in hypoxic cells by increased degradation of the COX4-1 subunit, which optimizes COX activity under aerobic conditions, and increased expression of the COX4-2 subunit, which optimizes COX activity under hypoxic conditions [29]. On the other hand, direct assay of respiration rate in cells exposed to hypoxia resulted in a significant reduction of respiration [60]. According with the evidence of Zhang et al., the respiration rate decrease has to be ascribed to mitochondrial autophagy, due to HIF-1-mediated expression of BNIP3. This interpretation is in line with preliminary results obtained in our laboratory where the assay of the citrate synthase activity of cells exposed to different oxygen tensions was performed. Fig. 2 shows the citrate synthase activity, which is taken as an index of the mitochondrial mass [11], with respect to oxygen tension: [O2] and mitochondrial mass are directly linked.

Citrate synthase activity

Citrate synthase activity

Fig. 2. Citrate synthase activity. Human primary fibroblasts, obtained from skin biopsies of 5 healthy donors, were seeded at a density of 8,000 cells/cm2 in high glucose Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium, DMEM (25 mM glucose, 110 mg/l pyruvate, and 4 mM glutamine) supplemented with 15% Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS). 18 h later, cell culture dishes were washed once with Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution (HBSS) and the medium was replaced with DMEM containing 5 mM glucose, 110 mg/l pyruvate, and 4 mM glutamine supplemented with 15% FBS. Cell culture dishes were then placed into an INVIVO2 humidified hypoxia workstation (Ruskinn Technologies, Bridgend, UK) for 72 h changing the medium at 48 h, and oxygen partial pressure (tension) conditions were: 20%, 4%, 2%, 1% and 0.5%. Cells were subsequently collected within the workstation with trypsin-EDTA (0.25%), washed with PBS and resuspended in a buffer containing 10 mM Tris/HCl, 0.1 M KCl, 5 mM KH2PO4, 1 mM EGTA, 3 mM EDTA, and 2 mM MgCl2 pH 7.4 (all the solutions were preconditioned to the appropriate oxygen tension condition). The citrate synthase activity was assayed essentially by incubating 40 µg of cells with 0.02% Triton X-100, and monitoring the reaction by measuring spectrophotometrically the rate of free coenzyme A released, as described in [90]. Enzymatic activity was expressed as nmol/min/mg of protein. Three independent experiments were carried out and assays were performed in either duplicate or triplicate.

However, the observations of Semenza et al. must be seen in relation with data reported by Moncada et al.[57] and confirmed by others [61] in which it is clearly shown that when cells (various cell lines) experience hypoxic conditions, nitric oxide synthases (NOSs) are activated, therefore NO is released. As already mentioned above, NO is a strong competitor of O2 for cytochrome c oxidase, whose apparent Km results increased, hence reduction of mitochondrial cytochromes and all the other redox centres of the respiratory chain occurs. In addition, very recent data indicate a potential de-activation of Complex I when oxygen is lacking, as it occurs in prolonged hypoxia [62]. According to Hagen et al. [63] the NO-dependent inhibition of cytochrome c oxidase should allow “saved” O2 to redistribute within the cell to be used by other enzymes, including PHDs which inactivate HIF. Therefore, unless NO inhibition of cytochrome c oxidase occurs only when [O2] is very low, inhibition of mitochondrial oxygen consumption creates the paradox of a situation in which the cell may fail to register hypoxia. It has been tempted to solve this paradox, but to date only hypotheses have been proposed [23] and [26]. Interestingly, recent observations on yeast cells exposed to hypoxia revealed abnormal protein carbonylation and protein tyrosine nitration that were ascribed to increased mitochondrially generated superoxide radicals and NO, two species typically produced at low oxygen levels, that combine to form ONOO [64]. Based on these studies a possible explanation has been proposed for the above paradox.

Finally, it has to be noticed that the mitochondrial respiratory deficiency observed in cardiomyocytes of dogs in which experimental heart failure had been induced lies in the supermolecular assembly rather than in the individual components of the electron-transport chain [65]. This observation is particularly intriguing since loss of respirasomes is thought to facilitate ROS generation in mitochondria [66], therefore supercomplexes disassembly might explain the paradox of reduced [O2] and the enhanced ROS found in hypoxic cells. Specifically, hypoxia could reduce mitochondrial fusion by impairing mitochondrial membrane potential, which in turn could induce supercomplexes disassembly, increasing ROS production[11].

Complex III and ROS production

It has been estimated that, under normoxic physiological conditions, 1–2% of electron flow through the mitochondrial respiratory chain gives rise to ROS [67] and [68]. It is now recognized that the major sites of ROS production are within Complexes I and III, being prevalent the contribution of Complex I [69] (Fig. 3). It might be expected that hypoxia would decrease ROS production, due to the low level of O2 and to the diminished mitochondrial respiration [6] and [46], but ROS level is paradoxically increased. Indeed, about a decade ago, Chandel et al. [70] provided good evidence that mitochondrial reactive oxygen species trigger hypoxia-induced transcription, and a few years later the same group [71] showed that ROS generated at Complex III of the mitochondrial respiratory chain stabilize HIF-1α during hypoxia (Fig. 1 and Fig. 3). Although others have proposed mechanisms indicating a key role of mitochondria in HIF-1α regulation during hypoxia (for reviews see [64] and [72]), the contribution of mitochondria to HIF-1 regulation has been questioned by others [35][36] and [37]. Results of Gong and Agani [35] for instance show that inhibition of electron-transport Complexes I, III, and IV, as well as inhibition of mitochondrial F0F1 ATPase, prevents HIF-1α expression and that mitochondrial reactive oxygen species are not involved in HIF-1α regulation during hypoxia. Concurrently, Tuttle et al. [73], by means of a non invasive, spectroscopic approach, could find no evidence to suggest that ROS, produced by mitochondria, are needed to stabilize HIF-1α under moderate hypoxia. The same authors found the levels of HIF-1α comparable in both normal and ρ0 cells (i.e. cells lacking mitochondrial DNA). On the contrary, experiments carried out on genetic models consisting of either cells lacking cytochrome c or ρ0 cells both could evidence the essential role of mitochondrial respiration to stabilize HIF-1α [74]. Thus, cytochrome c null cells, being incapable to respire, exposed to moderate hypoxia (1.5% O2) prevented oxidation of ubiquinol and generation of the ubisemiquinone radical, thus eliminating superoxide formation at Complex III [71]. Concurrently, ρ0 cells lacking electron transport, exposed 4 h to moderate hypoxia failed to stabilize HIF-1α, suggesting the essential role of the respiratory chain for the cellular sensing of low O2 levels. In addition, recent evidence obtained on genetic manipulated cells (i.e. cytochrome b deficient cybrids) showed increased ROS levels and stabilized HIF-1α protein during hypoxia [75]. Moreover, RNA interference of the Complex III subunit Rieske iron sulfur protein in the cytochrome b deficient cells, abolished ROS generation at the Qo site of Complex III, preventing HIF-1α stabilization. These observations, substantiated by experiments with MitoQ, an efficient mitochondria-targeted antioxidant, strongly support the involvement of mitochondrial ROS in regulating HIF-1α. Nonetheless, collectively, the available data do not allow to definitely state the precise role of mitochondrial ROS in regulating HIF-1α, but the pathway stabilizing HIF-1α appears undoubtedly mitochondria-dependent [30].

Overview of mitochondrial electron and proton flux in hypoxia

Overview of mitochondrial electron and proton flux in hypoxia

Overview of mitochondrial electron and proton flux in hypoxia

Fig. 3. Overview of mitochondrial electron and proton flux in hypoxia. Electrons released from reduced cofactors (NADH and FADH2) under normoxia flow through the redox centres of the respiratory chain (r.c.) to molecular oxygen (blue dotted line), to which a proton flux from the mitochondrial matrix to the intermembrane space is coupled (blue arrows). Protons then flow back to the matrix through the F0 sector of the ATP synthase complex, driving ATP synthesis. ATP is carried to the cell cytosol by the adenine nucleotide translocator (blue arrows). Under moderate to severe hypoxia, electrons escape the r.c. redox centres and reduce molecular oxygen to the superoxide anion radical before reaching the cytochrome c (red arrow). Under these conditions, to maintain an appropriate Δψm, ATP produced by cytosolic glycolysis enters the mitochondria where it is hydrolyzed by the F1F0ATPase with extrusion of protons from the mitochondrial matrix (red arrows).

Hypoxia and ATP synthase

The F1F0 ATPase (ATP synthase) is the enzyme responsible of catalysing ADP phosphorylation as the last step of OXPHOS. It is a rotary motor using the proton motive force across the mitochondrial inner membrane to drive the synthesis of ATP [76]. It is a reversible enzyme with ATP synthesis or hydrolysis taking place in the F1 sector at the matrix side of the membrane, chemical catalysis being coupled to H+transport through the transmembrane F0 sector.

Under normoxia the enzyme synthesizes ATP, but when mitochondria experience hypoxic conditions the mitochondrial membrane potential (Δψm) decreases below its endogenous steady-state level (some 140 mV, negative inside the matrix [77]) and the F1F0 ATPase may work in the reversal mode: it hydrolyses ATP (produced by anaerobic glycolysis) and uses the energy released to pump protons from the mitochondrial matrix to the intermembrane space, concurring with the adenine nucleotide translocator (i.e. in hypoxia it exchanges cytosolic ATP4− for matrix ADP3−) to maintain the physiological Δψm ( Fig. 3). Since under conditions of limited oxygen availability the decline in cytoplasmic high energy phosphates is mainly due to hydrolysis by the ATP synthase working in reverse [6] and [78], the enzyme must be strictly regulated in order to avoid ATP dissipation. This is achieved by a natural protein, the H+ψm-dependent IF1, that binds to the catalytic F1 sector at low pH and low Δψm (such as it occurs in hypoxia/ischemia) [79]. IF1 binding to the ATP synthase results in a rapid and reversible inhibition of the enzyme [80], which could reach about 50% of maximal activity (for recent reviews see [6] and [81]).

Besides this widely studied effect, IF1 appears to be associated with ROS production and mitochondrial autophagy (mitophagy). This is a mechanism involving the catabolic degradation of macromolecules and organelles via the lysosomal pathway that contributes to housekeeping and regenerate metabolites. Autophagic degradation is involved in the regulation of the ageing process and in several human diseases, such as myocardial ischemia/reperfusion [82], Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington diseases, and inflammatory diseases (for recent reviews see [83] and [84], and, as mentioned above, it promotes cell survival by reducing ROS and mtDNA damage under hypoxic conditions.

Campanella et al. [81] reported that, in HeLa cells under normoxic conditions, basal autophagic activity varies in relation to the expression levels of IF1. Accordingly, cells overexpressing IF1 result in ROS production similar to controls, conversely cells in which IF1 expression is suppressed show an enhanced ROS production. In parallel, the latter cells show activation of the mitophagy pathway (Fig. 1), therefore suggesting that variations in IF1 expression level may play a significant role in defining two particularly important parameters in the context of the current review: rates of ROS generation and mitophagy. Thus, the hypoxia-induced enhanced expression level of IF1[81] should be associated with a decrease of both ROS production and autophagy, which is in apparent conflict with the hypoxia-induced ROS increase and with the HIF-1-dependent mitochondrial autophagy shown by Zhang et al. [60] as an adaptive metabolic response to hypoxia. However, in the experiments of Zhang et al. the cells were exposed to hypoxia for 48 h, whereas the F1F0-ATPase inhibitor exerts a prompt action on the enzyme and to our knowledge, it has never been reported whether its action persists during prolonged hypoxic expositions. Pertinent with this problem is the very recent observation that IEX-1 (immediate early response gene X-1), a stress-inducible gene that suppresses production of ROS and protects cells from apoptosis [85], targets the mitochondrial F1F0-ATPase inhibitor for degradation, reducing ROS by decreasing Δψm. It has to be noticed that the experiments described were carried out under normal oxygen availability, but it does not seem reasonable to rule out IEX-1 from playing a role under stress conditions as those induced by hypoxia in cells, therefore this issue might deserve an investigation also at low oxygen levels.

In conclusion, data are still emerging regarding the regulation of mitochondrial function by the F1F0 ATPase within hypoxic responses in different cellular and physiological contexts. Given the broad pathophysiological role of hypoxic cellular modulation, an understanding of the subtle tuning among different effectors of the ATP synthase is desirable to eventually target future therapeutics most effectively. Our laboratory is actually involved in carrying out investigations to clarify this context.

Conclusions and perspectives

The mitochondria are important cellular platforms that both propagate and initiate intracellular signals that lead to overall cellular and metabolic responses. During the last decades, a significant amount of relevant data has been obtained on the identification of mechanisms of cellular adaptation to hypoxia. In hypoxic cells there is an enhanced transcription and synthesis of several glycolytic pathway enzymes/transporters and reduction of synthesis of proteins involved in mitochondrial catabolism. Although well defined kinetic parameters of reactions in hypoxia are lacking, it is usually assumed that these transcriptional changes lead to metabolic flux modification. The required biochemical experimentation has been scarcely addressed until now and only in few of the molecular and cellular biology studies the transporter and enzyme kinetic parameters and flux rate have been determined, leaving some uncertainties.

Central to mitochondrial function and ROS generation is an electrochemical proton gradient across the mitochondrial inner membrane that is established by the proton pumping activity of the respiratory chain, and that is strictly linked to the F1F0-ATPase function. Evaluation of the mitochondrial membrane potential in hypoxia has only been studied using semiquantitative methods based on measurements of the fluorescence intensity of probes taken up by cells experiencing normal or hypoxic conditions. However, this approach is intrinsically incorrect due to the different capability that molecular oxygen has to quench fluorescence [86] and [87] and to the uncertain concentration the probe attains within mitochondria, whose mass may be reduced by a half in hypoxia [60]. In addition, the uncertainty about measurement of mitochondrial superoxide radical and H2O2 formation in vivo [88] hampers studies on the role of mitochondrial ROS in hypoxic oxidative damage, redox signaling, and HIF-1 stabilization.

The duration and severity of hypoxic stress differentially activate the responses discussed throughout and lead to substantial phenotypic variations amongst tissues and cell models, which are not consistently and definitely known. Certainly, understanding whether a hierarchy among hypoxia response mechanisms exists and which are the precise timing and conditions of each mechanism to activate, will improve our knowledge of the biochemical mechanisms underlying hypoxia in cells, which eventually may contribute to define therapeutic targets in hypoxia-associated diseases. To this aim it might be worth investigating the hypoxia-induced structural organization of both the respiratory chain enzymes in supramolecular complexes and the assembly of the ATP synthase to form oligomers affecting ROS production [65] and inner mitochondrial membrane structure [89], respectively.

7.9.2 Hypoxia promotes isocitrate dehydrogenase-dependent carboxylation of α-ketoglutarate to citrate to support cell growth and viability

DR WisePS WardJES ShayJR CrossJJ Gruber, UM Sachdeva, et al.
Proc Nat Acad Sci Oct 27, 2011; 108(49):19611–19616

Citrate is a critical metabolite required to support both mitochondrial bioenergetics and cytosolic macromolecular synthesis. When cells proliferate under normoxic conditions, glucose provides the acetyl-CoA that condenses with oxaloacetate to support citrate production. Tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle anaplerosis is maintained primarily by glutamine. Here we report that some hypoxic cells are able to maintain cell proliferation despite a profound reduction in glucose-dependent citrate production. In these hypoxic cells, glutamine becomes a major source of citrate. Glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate is reductively carboxylated by the NADPH-linked mitochondrial isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH2) to form isocitrate, which can then be isomerized to citrate. The increased IDH2-dependent carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate in hypoxia is associated with a concomitant increased synthesis of 2-hydroxyglutarate (2HG) in cells with wild-type IDH1 and IDH2. When either starved of glutamine or rendered IDH2-deficient by RNAi, hypoxic cells are unable to proliferate. The reductive carboxylation of glutamine is part of the metabolic reprogramming associated with hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF1), as constitutive activation of HIF1 recapitulates the preferential reductive metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate even in normoxic conditions. These data support a role for glutamine carboxylation in maintaining citrate synthesis and cell growth under hypoxic conditions.

Citrate plays a critical role at the center of cancer cell metabolism. It provides the cell with a source of carbon for fatty acid and cholesterol synthesis (1). The breakdown of citrate by ATP-citrate lyase is a primary source of acetyl-CoA for protein acetylation (2). Metabolism of cytosolic citrate by aconitase and IDH1 can also provide the cell with a source of NADPH for redox regulation and anabolic synthesis. Mammalian cells depend on the catabolism of glucose and glutamine to fuel proliferation (3). In cancer cells cultured at atmospheric oxygen tension (21% O2), glucose and glutamine have both been shown to contribute to the cellular citrate pool, with glutamine providing the major source of the four-carbon molecule oxaloacetate and glucose providing the major source of the two-carbon molecule acetyl-CoA (45). The condensation of oxaloacetate and acetyl-CoA via citrate synthase generates the 6 carbon citrate molecule. However, both the conversion of glucose-derived pyruvate to acetyl-CoA by pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) and the conversion of glutamine to oxaloacetate through the TCA cycle depend on NAD+, which can be compromised under hypoxic conditions. This raises the question of how cells that can proliferate in hypoxia continue to synthesize the citrate required for macromolecular synthesis.

This question is particularly important given that many cancers and stem/progenitor cells can continue proliferating in the setting of limited oxygen availability (67). Louis Pasteur first highlighted the impact of hypoxia on nutrient metabolism based on his observation that hypoxic yeast cells preferred to convert glucose into lactic acid rather than burning it in an oxidative fashion. The molecular basis for this shift in mammalian cells has been linked to the activity of the transcription factor HIF1 (810). Stabilization of the labile HIF1α subunit occurs in hypoxia. It can also occur in normoxia through several mechanisms including loss of the von Hippel-Lindau tumor suppressor (VHL), a common occurrence in renal carcinoma (11). Although hypoxia and/or HIF1α stabilization is a common feature of multiple cancers, to date the source of citrate in the setting of hypoxia or HIF activation has not been determined.

Here, we study the sources of hypoxic citrate synthesis in a glioblastoma cell line that proliferates in profound hypoxia (0.5% O2). Glucose uptake and conversion to lactic acid increased in hypoxia. However, glucose conversion into citrate dramatically declined. Glutamine consumption remained constant in hypoxia, and hypoxic cells were addicted to the use of glutamine in hypoxia as a source of α-ketoglutarate. Glutamine provided the major carbon source for citrate synthesis during hypoxia. However, the TCA cycle-dependent conversion of glutamine into citric acid was significantly suppressed. In contrast, there was a relative increase in glutamine-dependent citrate production in hypoxia that resulted from carboxylation of α-ketoglutarate. This reductive synthesis required the presence of mitochondrial isocitrate dehydrogenase 2 (IDH2). In confirmation of the reverse flux through IDH2, the increased reductive metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate in hypoxia was associated with increased synthesis of 2HG. Finally, constitutive HIF1α-expressing cells also demonstrated significant reductive-carboxylation-dependent synthesis of citrate in normoxia and a relative defect in the oxidative conversion of glutamine into citrate. Collectively, the data demonstrate that mitochondrial glutamine metabolism can be rerouted through IDH2-dependent citrate synthesis in support of hypoxic cell growth.

Some Cancer Cells Can Proliferate at 0.5% O2 Despite a Sharp Decline in Glucose-Dependent Citrate Synthesis.

At 21% O2, cancer cells have been shown to synthesize citrate by condensing glucose-derived acetyl-CoA with glutamine-derived oxaloacetate through the activity of the canonical TCA cycle enzyme citrate synthase (4). In contrast, less is known regarding the synthesis of citrate by cells that can continue proliferating in hypoxia. The glioblastoma cell line SF188 is able to proliferate at 0.5% O2 (Fig. 1A), a level of hypoxia that is sufficient to stabilize HIF1α (Fig. 1B) and predicted to limit respiration (1213). Consistent with previous observations in hypoxic cells, we found that SF188 cells demonstrated increased lactate production when incubated in hypoxia (Fig. 1C), and the ratio of lactate produced to glucose consumed increased demonstrating an increase in the rate of anaerobic glycolysis. When glucose-derived carbon in the form of pyruvate is converted to lactate, it is diverted away from subsequent metabolism that can contribute to citrate production. However, we observed that SF188 cells incubated in hypoxia maintain their intracellular citrate to ∼75% of the level maintained under normoxia (Fig. 1D). This prompted an investigation of how proliferating cells maintain citrate production under hypoxia.

SF188 glioblastoma cells proliferate at 0.5% O2 despite a profound reduction in glucose-dependent citrate synthesis.

SF188 glioblastoma cells proliferate at 0.5% O2 despite a profound reduction in glucose-dependent citrate synthesis.

Fig. 1. SF188 glioblastoma cells proliferate at 0.5% O2 despite a profound reduction in glucose-dependent citrate synthesis. (A) SF188 cells were plated in complete medium equilibrated with 21% O2 (Normoxia) or 0.5% O2 (Hypoxia), total viable cells were counted 24 h and 48 h later (Day 1 and Day 2), and population doublings were calculated. Data are the mean ± SEM of four independent experiments. (B) Western blot demonstrates stabilized HIF1α protein in cells cultured in hypoxia compared with normoxia. (C) Cells were grown in normoxia or hypoxia for 24 h, after which culture medium was collected. Medium glucose and lactate levels were measured and compared with the levels in fresh medium. (D) Cells were cultured for 24 h as in C. Intracellular metabolism was then quenched with 80% MeOH prechilled to −80 °C that was spiked with a 13C-labeled citrate as an internal standard. Metabolites were then extracted, and intracellular citrate levels were analyzed with GC-MS and normalized to cell number. Data for C and D are the mean ± SEM of three independent experiments. (E) Model depicting the pathway for cit+2 production from [U-13C]glucose. Glucose uniformly 13C-labeled will generate pyruvate+3. Pyruvate+3 can be oxidatively decarboxylated by PDH to produce acetyl-CoA+2, which can condense with unlabeled oxaloacetate to produce cit+2. (F) Cells were cultured for 24 h as in C and D, followed by an additional 4 h of culture in glucose-deficient medium supplemented with 10 mM [U-13C]glucose. Intracellular metabolites were then extracted, and 13C-enrichment in cellular citrate was analyzed by GC-MS and normalized to the total citrate pool size. Data are the mean ± SD of three independent cultures from a representative of two independent experiments. *P < 0.05, ***P < 0.001.

Increased glucose uptake and glycolytic metabolism are critical elements of the metabolic response to hypoxia. To evaluate the contributions made by glucose to the citrate pool under normoxia or hypoxia, SF188 cells incubated in normoxia or hypoxia were cultured in medium containing 10 mM [U-13C]glucose. Following a 4-h labeling period, cellular metabolites were extracted and analyzed for isotopic enrichment by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). In normoxia, the major 13C-enriched citrate species found was citrate enriched with two 13C atoms (cit+2), which can arise from the NAD+-dependent decarboxylation of pyruvate+3 to acetyl-CoA+2 by PDH, followed by the condensation of acetyl-CoA+2 with unenriched oxaloacetate (Fig. 1 E and F). Compared with the accumulation of cit+2, we observed minimal accumulation of cit+3 and cit+5 under normoxia. Cit+3 arises from pyruvate carboxylase (PC)-dependent conversion of pyruvate+3 to oxaloacetate+3, followed by the condensation of oxaloacetate+3 with unenriched acetyl-CoA. Cit+5 arises when PC-generated oxaloacetate+3 condenses with PDH-generated acetyl-CoA+2. The lack of cit+3 and cit+5 accumulation is consistent with PC activity not playing a major role in citrate production in normoxic SF188 cells, as reported (4).

In hypoxic cells, the major citrate species observed was unenriched. Cit+2, cit+3, and cit+5 all constituted minor fractions of the total citrate pool, consistent with glucose carbon not being incorporated into citrate through either PDH or PC-mediated metabolism under hypoxic conditions (Fig. 1F). These data demonstrate that in contrast to normoxic cells, where a large percentage of citrate production depends on glucose-derived carbon, hypoxic cells significantly reduce their rate of citrate production from glucose.

Glutamine Carbon Metabolism Is Required for Viability in Hypoxia.

In addition to glucose, we have previously reported that glutamine can contribute to citrate production during cell growth under normoxic conditions (4). Surprisingly, under hypoxic conditions, we observed that SF188 cells retained their high rate of glutamine consumption (Fig. 2A). Moreover, hypoxic cells cultured in glutamine-deficient medium displayed a significant loss of viability (Fig. 2B). In normoxia, the requirement for glutamine to maintain viability of SF188 cells can be satisfied by α-ketoglutarate, the downstream metabolite of glutamine that is devoid of nitrogenous groups (14). α-ketoglutarate cannot fulfill glutamine’s roles as a nitrogen source for nonessential amino acid synthesis or as an amide donor for nucleotide or hexosamine synthesis, but can be metabolized through the oxidative TCA cycle to regenerate oxaloacetate, and subsequently condense with glucose-derived acetyl-CoA to produce citrate. To test whether the restoration of carbon from glutamine metabolism in the form of α-ketoglutarate could rescue the viability defect of glutamine-starved SF188 cells even under hypoxia, SF188 cells incubated in hypoxia were cultured in glutamine-deficient medium supplemented with a cell-penetrant form of α-ketoglutarate (dimethyl α-ketoglutarate). The addition of dimethyl α-ketoglutarate rescued the defect in cell viability observed upon glutamine withdrawal (Fig. 2B). These data demonstrate that, even under hypoxic conditions, when the ability of glutamine to replenish oxaloacetate through oxidative TCA cycle metabolism is diminished, SF188 cells retain their requirement for glutamine as the carbon backbone for α-ketoglutarate. This result raised the possibility that glutamine could be the carbon source for citrate production through an alternative, nonoxidative, pathway in hypoxia.

Glutamine carbon is required for hypoxic cell viability

Glutamine carbon is required for hypoxic cell viability

Glutamine carbon is required for hypoxic cell viability

Fig. 2. Glutamine carbon is required for hypoxic cell viability and contributes to increased citrate production through reductive carboxylation relative to oxidative metabolism in hypoxia. (A) SF188 cells were cultured for 24 h in complete medium equilibrated with either 21% O2 (Normoxia) or 0.5% O2(Hypoxia). Culture medium was then removed from cells and analyzed for glutamine levels which were compared with the glutamine levels in fresh medium. Data are the mean ± SEM of three independent experiments. (B) The requirement for glutamine to maintain hypoxic cell viability can be satisfied by α-ketoglutarate. Cells were cultured in complete medium equilibrated with 0.5% O2 for 24 h, followed by an additional 48 h at 0.5% O2 in either complete medium (+Gln), glutamine-deficient medium (−Gln), or glutamine-deficient medium supplemented with 7 mM dimethyl α-ketoglutarate (−Gln +αKG). All medium was preconditioned in 0.5% O2. Cell viability was determined by trypan blue dye exclusion. Data are the mean and range from two independent experiments. (C) Model depicting the pathways for cit+4 and cit+5 production from [U-13C]glutamine (glutamine+5). Glutamine+5 is catabolized to α-ketoglutarate+5, which can then contribute to citrate production by two divergent pathways. Oxidative metabolism produces oxaloacetate+4, which can condense with unlabeled acetyl-CoA to produce cit+4. Alternatively, reductive carboxylation produces isocitrate+5, which can isomerize to cit+5. (D) Glutamine contributes to citrate production through increased reductive carboxylation relative to oxidative metabolism in hypoxic proliferating cancer cells. Cells were cultured for 24 h as in A, followed by 4 h of culture in glutamine-deficient medium supplemented with 4 mM [U-13C]glutamine. 13C enrichment in cellular citrate was quantitated with GC-MS. Data are the mean ± SD of three independent cultures from a representative of three independent experiments. **P < 0.01.

Cells Proliferating in Hypoxia Maintain Levels of Additional Metabolites Through Reductive Carboxylation.

Previous work has documented that, in normoxic conditions, SF188 cells use glutamine as the primary anaplerotic substrate, maintaining the pool sizes of TCA cycle intermediates through oxidative metabolism (4). Surprisingly, we found that, when incubated in hypoxia, SF188 cells largely maintained their levels of aspartate (in equilibrium with oxaloacetate), malate, and fumarate (Fig. 3A). To distinguish how glutamine carbon contributes to these metabolites in normoxia and hypoxia, SF188 cells incubated in normoxia or hypoxia were cultured in medium containing 4 mM [U-13C]glutamine. After a 4-h labeling period, metabolites were extracted and the intracellular pools of aspartate, malate, and fumarate were analyzed by GC-MS.

In normoxia, the majority of the enriched intracellular asparatate, malate, and fumarate were the +4 species, which arise through oxidative metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate (Fig. 3 B and C). The +3 species, which can be derived from the citrate generated by the reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate, constituted a significantly lower percentage of the total aspartate, malate, and fumarate pools. By contrast, in hypoxia, the +3 species constituted a larger percentage of the total aspartate, malate, and fumarate pools than they did in normoxia. These data demonstrate that, in addition to citrate, hypoxic cells preferentially synthesize oxaloacetate, malate, and fumarate through the pathway of reductive carboxylation rather than the oxidative TCA cycle.

IDH2 Is Critical in Hypoxia for Reductive Metabolism of Glutamine and for Cell Proliferation.

We hypothesized that the relative increase in reductive carboxylation we observed in hypoxia could arise from the suppression of α-ketoglutarate oxidation through the TCA cycle. Consistent with this, we found that α-ketoglutarate levels increased in SF188 cells following 24 h in hypoxia (Fig. 4A). Surprisingly, we also found that levels of the closely related metabolite 2-hydroxyglutarate (2HG) increased in hypoxia, concomitant with the increase in α-ketoglutarate under these conditions. 2HG can arise from the noncarboxylating reduction of α-ketoglutarate (Fig. 4B). Recent work has found that specific cancer-associated mutations in the active sites of either IDH1 or IDH2 lead to a 10- to 100-fold enhancement in this activity facilitating 2HG production (1517), but SF188 cells lack IDH1/2 mutations. However, 2HG levels are also substantially elevated in the inborn error of metabolism 2HG aciduria, and the majority of patients with this disease lack IDH1/2 mutations. As 2HG has been demonstrated to arise in these patients from mitochondrial α-ketoglutarate (18), we hypothesized that both the increased reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to citrate and the increased 2HG accumulation we observed in hypoxia could arise from increased reductive metabolism by wild-type IDH2 in the mitochondria.

Reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to citrate in hypoxic cancer cells is dependent on mitochondrial IDH2

Reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to citrate in hypoxic cancer cells is dependent on mitochondrial IDH2

Reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to citrate in hypoxic cancer cells is dependent on mitochondrial IDH2

Fig. 4. Reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to citrate in hypoxic cancer cells is dependent on mitochondrial IDH2. (A) α-ketoglutarate and 2HG increase in hypoxia. SF188 cells were cultured in complete medium equilibrated with either 21% O2 (Normoxia) or 0.5% O2 (Hypoxia) for 24 h. Intracellular metabolites were then extracted, cell extracts spiked with a 13C-labeled citrate as an internal standard, and intracellular α-ketoglutarate and 2HG levels were analyzed with GC-MS. Data shown are the mean ± SEM of three independent experiments. (B) Model for reductive metabolism from glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate. Glutamine+5 is catabolized to α-ketoglutarate+5. Carboxylation of α-ketoglutarate+5 followed by reduction of the carboxylated intermediate (reductive carboxylation) will produce isocitrate+5, which can then isomerize to cit+5. In contrast, reductive activity on α-ketoglutarate+5 that is uncoupled from carboxylation will produce 2HG+5. (C) IDH2 is required for reductive metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate in hypoxia. SF188 cells transfected with a siRNA against IDH2 (siIDH2) or nontargeting negative control (siCTRL) were cultured for 2 d in complete medium equilibrated with 0.5% O2. (Upper) Cells were then cultured at 0.5% O2 for an additional 4 h in glutamine-deficient medium supplemented with 4 mM [U-13C]glutamine. 13C enrichment in intracellular citrate and 2HG was determined and normalized to the relevant metabolite total pool size. (Lower) Cells transfected and cultured in parallel at 0.5% O2 were counted by hemacytometer (excluding nonviable cells with trypan blue staining) or harvested for protein to assess IDH2 expression by Western blot. Data shown for GC-MS and cell counts are the mean ± SD of three independent cultures from a representative experiment. **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001.

In an experiment to test this hypothesis, SF188 cells were transfected with either siRNA directed against mitochondrial IDH2 (siIDH2) or nontargeting control, incubated in hypoxia for 2 d, and then cultured for another 4 h in hypoxia in media containing 4 mM [U-13C]glutamine. After the labeling period, metabolites were extracted and analyzed by GC-MS (Fig. 4C). Hypoxic SF188 cells transfected with siIDH2 displayed a decreased contribution of cit+5 to the total citrate pool, supporting an important role for IDH2 in the reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate in hypoxic conditions. The contribution of cit+4 to the total citrate pool did not decrease with siIDH2 treatment, consistent with IDH2 knockdown specifically affecting the pathway of reductive carboxylation and not other fundamental TCA cycle-regulating processes. In confirmation of reverse flux occurring through IDH2, the contribution of 2HG+5 to the total 2HG pool decreased in siIDH2-treated cells. Supporting the importance of citrate production by IDH2-mediated reductive carboxylation for hypoxic cell proliferation, siIDH2-transfected SF188 cells displayed a defect in cellular accumulation in hypoxia. Decreased expression of IDH2 protein following siIDH2 transfection was confirmed by Western blot. Collectively, these data point to the importance of mitochondrial IDH2 for the increase in reductive carboxylation flux of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to maintain citrate levels in hypoxia, and to the importance of this reductive pathway for hypoxic cell proliferation.

Reprogramming of Metabolism by HIF1 in the Absence of Hypoxia Is Sufficient to Induce Increased Citrate Synthesis by Reductive Carboxylation Relative to Oxidative Metabolism.

The relative increase in the reductive metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate at 0.5% O2 may be explained by the decreased ability to carry out oxidative NAD+-dependent reactions as respiration is inhibited (1213). However, a shift to preferential reductive glutamine metabolism could also result from the active reprogramming of cellular metabolism by HIF1 (810), which inhibits the generation of mitochondrial acetyl-CoA necessary for the synthesis of citrate by oxidative glucose and glutamine metabolism (Fig. 5A). To better understand the role of HIF1 in reductive glutamine metabolism, we used VHL-deficient RCC4 cells, which display constitutive expression of HIF1α under normoxia (Fig. 5B). RCC4 cells expressing either a nontargeting control shRNA (shCTRL) or an shRNA directed at HIF1α (shHIF1α) were incubated in normoxia and cultured in medium with 4 mM [U-13C]glutamine. Following a 4-h labeling period, metabolites were extracted and the cellular citrate pool was analyzed by GC-MS. In shCTRL cells, which have constitutive HIF1α expression despite incubation in normoxia, the majority of the total citrate pool was constituted by the cit+5 species, with low levels of all other species including cit+4 (Fig. 5C). By contrast, in HIF1α-deficient cells the contribution of cit+5 to the total citrate pool was greatly decreased, whereas the contribution of cit+4 to the total citrate pool increased and was the most abundant citrate species. These data demonstrate that the relative enhancement of the reductive carboxylation pathway for citrate synthesis can be recapitulated by constitutive HIF1 activation in normoxia.

Reprogramming of metabolism by HIF1 in the absence of hypoxia

Reprogramming of metabolism by HIF1 in the absence of hypoxia

Reprogramming of metabolism by HIF1 in the absence of hypoxia is sufficient to induce reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate.

Fig. 5. Reprogramming of metabolism by HIF1 in the absence of hypoxia is sufficient to induce reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate. (A) Model depicting how HIF1 signaling’s inhibition of pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) activity and promotion of lactate dehydrogenase-A (LDH-A) activity can block the generation of mitochondrial acetyl-CoA from glucose-derived pyruvate, thereby favoring citrate synthesis from reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate. (B) Western blot demonstrating HIF1α protein in RCC4 VHL−/− cells in normoxia with a nontargeting shRNA (shCTRL), and the decrease in HIF1α protein in RCC4 VHL−/− cells stably expressing HIF1α shRNA (shHIF1α). (C) HIF1-induced reprogramming of glutamine metabolism. Cells from B at 21% O2 were cultured for 4 h in glutamine-deficient medium supplemented with 4 mM [U-13C]glutamine. Intracellular metabolites were then extracted, and 13C enrichment in cellular citrate was determined by GC-MS. Data shown are the mean ± SD of three independent cultures from a representative of three independent experiments. ***P < 0.001.

Compared with glucose metabolism, much less is known regarding how glutamine metabolism is altered under hypoxia. It has also remained unclear how hypoxic cells can maintain the citrate production necessary for macromolecular biosynthesis. In this report, we demonstrate that in contrast to cells at 21% O2, where citrate is predominantly synthesized through oxidative metabolism of both glucose and glutamine, reductive carboxylation of glutamine carbon becomes the major pathway of citrate synthesis in cells that can effectively proliferate at 0.5% O2. Moreover, we show that in these hypoxic cells, reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate is dependent on mitochondrial IDH2. Although others have previously suggested the existence of reductive carboxylation in cancer cells (1920), these studies failed to demonstrate the intracellular localization or specific IDH isoform responsible for the reductive carboxylation flux. Recently, we identified IDH2 as an isoform that contributes to reductive carboxylation in cancer cells incubated at 21% O2 (16), but remaining unclear were the physiological importance and regulation of this pathway relative to oxidative metabolism, as well as the conditions where this reductive pathway might be advantageous for proliferating cells.

Here we report that IDH2-mediated reductive carboxylation of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate to citrate is an important feature of cells proliferating in hypoxia. Moreover, the reliance on reductive glutamine metabolism can be recapitulated in normoxia by constitutive HIF1 activation in cells with loss of VHL. The mitochondrial NADPH/NADP+ ratio required to fuel the reductive reaction through IDH2 can arise from the increased NADH/NAD+ ratio existing in the mitochondria under hypoxic conditions (2122), with the transfer of electrons from NADH to NADP+ to generate NADPH occurring through the activity of the mitochondrial transhydrogenase (23). Our data do not exclude a complementary role for cytosolic IDH1 in impacting reductive glutamine metabolism, potentially through its oxidative function in an IDH2/IDH1 shuttle that transfers high energy electrons in the form of NADPH from mitochondria to cytosol (1624).

In further support of the increased mitochondrial reductive glutamine metabolism that we observe in hypoxia, we report here that incubation in hypoxia can lead to elevated 2HG levels in cells lacking IDH1/2 mutations. 2HG production from glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate significantly decreased with knockdown of IDH2, supporting the conclusion that 2HG is produced in hypoxia by enhanced reverse flux of α-ketoglutarate through IDH2 in a truncated, noncarboxylating reductive reaction. However, other mechanisms may also contribute to 2HG elevation in hypoxia. These include diminished oxidative activity and/or enhanced reductive activity of the 2HG dehydrogenase, a mitochondrial enzyme that normally functions to oxidize 2HG back to α-ketoglutarate (25). The level of 2HG elevation we observe in hypoxic cells is associated with a concomitant increase in α-ketoglutarate, and is modest relative to that observed in cancers with IDH1/2 gain-of-function mutations. Nonetheless, 2HG elevation resulting from hypoxia in cells with wild-type IDH1/2 may hold promise as a cellular or serum biomarker for tissues undergoing chronic hypoxia and/or excessive glutamine metabolism.

The IDH2-dependent reductive carboxylation pathway that we propose in this report allows for continued citrate production from glutamine carbon when hypoxia and/or HIF1 activation prevents glucose carbon from contributing to citrate synthesis. Moreover, as opposed to continued oxidative TCA cycle functioning in hypoxia which can increase reactive oxygen species (ROS), reductive carboxylation of α-ketoglutarate in the mitochondria may serve as an electron sink that decreases the generation of ROS. HIF1 activity is not limited to the setting of hypoxia, as a common feature of several cancers is the normoxic stabilization of HIF1α through loss of the VHL tumor suppressor or other mechanisms. We demonstrate here that altered glutamine metabolism through a mitochondrial reductive pathway is a central aspect of hypoxic proliferating cell metabolism and HIF1-induced metabolic reprogramming. These findings are relevant for the understanding of numerous constitutive HIF1-expressing malignancies, as well as for populations, such as stem progenitor cells, which frequently proliferate in hypoxic conditions.

7.9.3 Hypoxia-Inducible Factors in Physiology and Medicine

Gregg L. Semenza
Cell. 2012 Feb 3; 148(3): 399–408.

Oxygen homeostasis represents an organizing principle for understanding metazoan evolution, development, physiology, and pathobiology. The hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) are transcriptional activators that function as master regulators of oxygen homeostasis in all metazoan species. Rapid progress is being made in elucidating homeostatic roles of HIFs in many physiological systems, determining pathological consequences of HIF dysregulation in chronic diseases, and investigating potential targeting of HIFs for therapeutic purposes. Oxygen homeostasis represents an organizing principle for understanding metazoan evolution, development, physiology, and pathobiology. The hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) are transcriptional activators that function as master regulators of oxygen homeostasis in all metazoan species. Rapid progress is being made in elucidating homeostatic roles of HIFs in many physiological systems, determining pathological consequences of HIF dysregulation in chronic diseases, and investigating potential targeting of HIFs for therapeutic purposes.


Oxygen is central to biology because of its utilization in the process of respiration. O2 serves as the final electron acceptor in oxidative phosphorylation, which carries with it the risk of generating reactive oxygen species (ROS) that react with cellular macromolecules and alter their biochemical or physical properties, resulting in cell dysfunction or death. As a consequence, metazoan organisms have evolved elaborate cellular metabolic and systemic physiological systems that are designed to maintain oxygen homeostasis. This review will focus on the role of hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) as master regulators of oxygen homeostasis and, in particular, on recent advances in understanding their roles in physiology and medicine. Due to space limitations and the remarkably pleiotropic effects of HIFs, the description of such roles will be illustrative rather than comprehensive.

O2 and Evolution, Part 1

Accumulation of O2 in Earth’s atmosphere starting ~2.5 billion years ago led to evolution of the extraordinarily efficient system of oxidative phosphorylation that transfers chemical energy stored in carbon bonds of organic molecules to the high-energy phosphate bond in ATP, which is used to power physicochemical reactions in living cells. Energy produced by mitochondrial respiration is sufficient to power the development and maintenance of multicellular organisms, which could not be sustained by energy produced by glycolysis alone (Lane and Martin, 2010). The modest dimensions of primitive metazoan species were such that O2 could diffuse from the atmosphere to all of the organism’s thousand cells, as is the case for the worm Caenorhabditis elegans. To escape the constraints placed on organismal growth by diffusion, systems designed to conduct air to cells deep within the body evolved and were sufficient for O2delivery to organisms with hundreds of thousands of cells, such as the fly Drosophila melanogaster. The final leap in body scale occurred in vertebrates and was associated with the evolution of complex respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems designed to efficiently capture and distribute O2 to hundreds of millions of millions of cells in the case of the adult Homo sapiens.

Hypoxia-Inducible Factors

Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) is expressed by all extant metazoan species analyzed (Loenarz et al., 2011). HIF-1 consists of HIF-1α and HIF-1β subunits, which each contain basic helix-loop-helix-PAS (bHLH-PAS) domains (Wang et al., 1995) that mediate heterodimerization and DNA binding (Jiang et al., 1996a). HIF-1β heterodimerizes with other bHLH-PAS proteins and is present in excess, such that HIF-1α protein levels determine HIF-1 transcriptional activity (Semenza et al., 1996).

Under well-oxygenated conditions, HIF-1α is bound by the von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) protein, which recruits an ubiquitin ligase that targets HIF-1α for proteasomal degradation (Kaelin and Ratcliffe, 2008). VHL binding is dependent upon hydroxylation of a specific proline residue in HIF-1α by the prolyl hydroxylase PHD2, which uses O2 as a substrate such that its activity is inhibited under hypoxic conditions (Epstein et al., 2001). In the reaction, one oxygen atom is inserted into the prolyl residue and the other atom is inserted into the co-substrate α-ketoglutarate, splitting it into CO2 and succinate (Kaelin and Ratcliffe, 2008). Factor inhibiting HIF-1 (FIH-1) represses HIF-1α transactivation function (Mahon et al., 2001) by hydroxylating an asparaginyl residue, using O2 and α-ketoglutarate as substrates, thereby blocking the association of HIF-1α with the p300 coactivator protein (Lando et al., 2002). Dimethyloxalylglycine (DMOG), a competitive antagonist of α-ketoglutarate, inhibits the hydroxylases and induces HIF-1-dependent transcription (Epstein et al., 2001). HIF-1 activity is also induced by iron chelators (such as desferrioxamine) and cobalt chloride, which inhibit hydroxylases by displacing Fe(II) from the catalytic center (Epstein et al., 2001).

Studies in cultured cells (Jiang et al., 1996b) and isolated, perfused, and ventilated lung preparations (Yu et al., 1998) revealed an exponential increase in HIF-1α levels at O2 concentrations less than 6% (~40 mm Hg), which is not explained by known biochemical properties of the hydroxylases. In most adult tissues, O2concentrations are in the range of 3-5% and any decrease occurs along the steep portion of the dose-response curve, allowing a graded response to hypoxia. Analyses of cultured human cells have revealed that expression of hundreds of genes was increased in response to hypoxia in a HIF-1-dependent manner (as determined by RNA interference) with direct binding of HIF-1 to the gene (as determined by chromatin immunoprecipitation [ChIP] assays); in addition, the expression of hundreds of genes was decreased in response to hypoxia in a HIF-1-dependent manner but binding of HIF-1 to these genes was not detected (Mole et al., 2009), indicating that HIF-dependent repression occurs via indirect mechanisms, which include HIF-1-dependent expression of transcriptional repressors (Yun et al., 2002) and microRNAs (Kulshreshtha et al., 2007). ChIP-seq studies have revealed that only 40% of HIF-1 binding sites are located within 2.5 kb of the transcription start site (Schödel et al., 2011).

In vertebrates, HIF-2α is a HIF-1α paralog that is also regulated by prolyl and asparaginyl hydroxylation and dimerizes with HIF-1β, but is expressed in a cell-restricted manner and plays important roles in erythropoiesis, vascularization, and pulmonary development, as described below. In D. melanogaster, the gene encoding the HIF-1α ortholog is designated similar and its paralog is designated trachealess because inactivating mutations result in defective development of the tracheal tubes (Wilk et al., 1996). In contrast, C. elegans has only a single HIF-1α homolog (Epstein et al., 2001). Thus, in both invertebrates and vertebrates, evolution of specialized systems for O2 delivery was associated with the appearance of a HIF-1α paralog.

O2 and Metabolism

The regulation of metabolism is a principal and primordial function of HIF-1. Under hypoxic conditions, HIF-1 mediates a transition from oxidative to glycolytic metabolism through its regulation of: PDK1, encoding pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) kinase 1, which phosphorylates and inactivates PDH, thereby inhibiting the conversion of pyruvate to acetyl coenzyme A for entry into the tricarboxylic acid cycle (Kim et al., 2006Papandreou et al., 2006); LDHA, encoding lactate dehydrogenase A, which converts pyruvate to lactate (Semenza et al. 1996); and BNIP3 (Zhang et al. 2008) and BNIP3L (Bellot et al., 2009), which mediate selective mitochondrial autophagy (Figure 1). HIF-1 also mediates a subunit switch in cytochrome coxidase that improves the efficiency of electron transfer under hypoxic conditions (Fukuda et al., 2007). An analogous subunit switch is also observed in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, although it is mediated by a completely different mechanism (yeast lack HIF-1), suggesting that it may represent a fundamental response of eukaryotic cells to hypoxia.

Regulation of Glucose Metabolism nihms-350382-f0001

Regulation of Glucose Metabolism nihms-350382-f0001

Regulation of Glucose Metabolism
Figure 1
Regulation of Glucose Metabolism

It is conventional wisdom that cells switch to glycolysis when O2 becomes limiting for mitochondrial ATP production. Yet, HIF-1α-null mouse embryo fibroblasts, which do not down-regulate respiration under hypoxic conditions, have higher ATP levels at 1% O2 than wild-type cells at 20% O2, demonstrating that under these conditions O2 is not limiting for ATP production (Zhang et al., 2008). However, the HIF-1α-null cells die under prolonged hypoxic conditions due to ROS toxicity (Kim et al. 2006Zhang et al., 2008). These studies have led to a paradigm shift with regard to our understanding of the regulation of cellular metabolism (Semenza, 2011): the purpose of this switch is to prevent excess mitochondrial generation of ROS that would otherwise occur due to the reduced efficiency of electron transfer under hypoxic conditions (Chandel et al., 1998). This may be particularly important in stem cells, in which avoidance of DNA damage is critical (Suda et al., 2011).

Role of HIFs in Development

Much of mammalian embryogenesis occurs at O2 concentrations of 1-5% and O2 functions as a morphogen (through HIFs) in many developmental systems (Dunwoodie, 2009). Mice that are homozygous for a null allele at the locus encoding HIF-1α die by embryonic day 10.5 with cardiac malformations, vascular defects, and impaired erythropoiesis, indicating that all three components of the circulatory system are dependent upon HIF-1 for normal development (Iyer et al., 1998Yoon et al., 2011). Depending on the genetic background, mice lacking HIF-2α: die by embryonic day 12.5 with vascular defects (Peng et al., 2000) or bradycardia due to deficient catecholamine production (Tian et al., 1998); die as neonates due to impaired lung maturation (Compernolle et al., 2002); or die several months after birth due to ROS-mediated multi-organ failure (Scortegagna et al., 2003). Thus, while vertebrate evolution was associated with concomitant appearance of the circulatory system and HIF-2α, both HIF-1 and HIF-2 have important roles in circulatory system development. Conditional knockout of HIF-1α in specific cell types has demonstrated important roles in chondrogenesis (Schipani et al., 2001), adipogenesis (Yun et al., 2002), B-lymphocyte development (Kojima et al., 2002), osteogenesis (Wang et al., 2007), hematopoiesis (Takubo et al., 2010), T-lymphocyte differentiation (Dang et al., 2011), and innate immunity (Zinkernagel et al., 2007). While knockout mouse experiments point to the adverse effects of HIF-1 loss-of-function on development, it is also possible that increased HIF-1 activity, induced by hypoxia in embryonic tissues as a result of abnormalities in placental blood flow, may also dysregulate development and result in congenital malformations. For example, HIF-1α has been shown to interact with, and stimulate the transcriptional activity of, Notch, which plays a key role in many developmental pathways (Gustafsson et al., 2005).

Translational Prospects

Drug discovery programs have been initiated at many pharmaceutical and biotech companies to develop prolyl hydroxylase inhibitors (PHIs) that, as described above for DMOG, induce HIF activity for treatment of disorders in which HIF mediates protective physiological responses. Local and/or short term induction of HIF activity by PHIs, gene therapy, or other means are likely to be useful novel therapies for many of the diseases described above. In the case of ischemic cardiovascular disease, local therapy is needed to provide homing signals for the recruitment of BMDACs. Chronic systemic use of PHIs must be approached with great caution: individuals with genetic mutations that constitutively activate the HIF pathway (described below) have increased incidence of cardiovascular disease and mortality (Yoon et al., 2011). On the other hand, the profound inhibition of HIF activity and vascular responses to ischemia that are associated with aging suggest that systemic replacement therapy might be contemplated as a preventive measure for subjects in whom impaired HIF responses to hypoxia can be documented. In C. elegans, VHL loss-of-function increases lifespan in a HIF-1-dependent manner (Mehta et al., 2009), providing further evidence for a mutually antagonistic relationship between HIF-1 and aging.


Cancers contain hypoxic regions as a result of high rates of cell proliferation coupled with the formation of vasculature that is structurally and functionally abnormal. Increased HIF-1α and/or HIF-2α levels in diagnostic tumor biopsies are associated with increased risk of mortality in cancers of the bladder, brain, breast, colon, cervix, endometrium, head/neck, lung, ovary, pancreas, prostate, rectum, and stomach; these results are complemented by experimental studies, which demonstrate that genetic manipulations that increase HIF-1α expression result in increased tumor growth, whereas loss of HIF activity results in decreased tumor growth (Semenza, 2010). HIFs are also activated by genetic alterations, most notably, VHL loss of function in clear cell renal carcinoma (Majmunder et al., 2010). HIFs activate transcription of genes that play key roles in critical aspects of cancer biology, including stem cell maintenance (Wang et al., 2011), cell immortalization, epithelial-mesenchymal transition (Mak et al., 2010), genetic instability (Huang et al., 2007), vascularization (Liao and Johnson, 2007), glucose metabolism (Luo et al., 2011), pH regulation (Swietach et al., 2007), immune evasion (Lukashev et al., 2007), invasion and metastasis (Chan and Giaccia, 2007), and radiation resistance (Moeller et al., 2007). Given the extensive validation of HIF-1 as a potential therapeutic target, drugs that inhibit HIF-1 have been identified and shown to have anti-cancer effects in xenograft models (Table 1Semenza, 2010).

Table 1  Drugs that Inhibit HIF-1

Process Inhibited Drug Class Prototype
HIF-1 α synthesis Cardiac glycosidemTOR inhibitorMicrotubule targeting agent

Topoisomerase I inhibitor



HIF-1 α protein stability HDAC inhibitorHSP90 inhibitorCalcineurin inhibitor

Guanylate cyclase activator



Heterodimerization Antimicrobial agent Acriflavine
DNA binding AnthracyclineQuinoxaline antibiotic DoxorubicinEchinomycin
Transactivation Proteasome inhibitorAntifungal agent BortezomibAmphotericin B
Signal transduction BCR-ABL inhibitorCyclooxygenase inhibitorEGFR inhibitor

HER2 inhibitor

ImatinibIbuprofenErlotinib, Gefitinib


Over 100 women die every day of breast cancer in the U.S. The mean PO2 is 10 mm Hg in breast cancer as compared to > 60 mm Hg in normal breast tissue and cancers with PO2 < 10 mm Hg are associated with increased risk of metastasis and patient mortality (Vaupel et al., 2004). Increased HIF-1α protein levels, as identified by immunohistochemical analysis of tumor biopsies, are associated with increased risk of metastasis and/or patient mortality in unselected breast cancer patients and in lymph node-positive, lymph node-negative, HER2+, or estrogen receptor+ subpopulations (Semenza, 2011). Metastasis is responsible for > 90% of breast cancer mortality. The requirement for HIF-1 in breast cancer metastasis has been demonstrated for both autochthonous tumors in transgenic mice (Liao et al., 2007) and orthotopic transplants in immunodeficient mice (Zhang et al., 2011Wong et al., 2011). Primary tumors direct the recruitment of bone marrow-derived cells to the lungs and other sites of metastasis (Kaplan et al., 2005). In breast cancer, hypoxia induces the expression of lysyl oxidase (LOX), a secreted protein that remodels collagen at sites of metastatic niche formation (Erler et al., 2009). In addition to LOX, breast cancers also express LOX-like proteins 2 and 4. LOX, LOXL2, and LOXL4 are all HIF-1-regulated genes and HIF-1 inhibition blocks metastatic niche formation regardless of which LOX/LOXL protein is expressed, whereas available LOX inhibitors are not effective against all LOXL proteins (Wong et al., 2011), again illustrating the role of HIF-1 as a master regulator that controls the expression of multiple genes involved in a single (patho)physiological process.

Translational Prospects

Small molecule inhibitors of HIF activity that have anti-cancer effects in mouse models have been identified (Table 1). Inhibition of HIF impairs both vascular and metabolic adaptations to hypoxia, which may decrease O2 delivery and increase O2 utilization. These drugs are likely to be useful (as components of multidrug regimens) in the treatment of a subset of cancer patients in whom high HIF activity is driving progression. As with all novel cancer therapeutics, successful translation will require the development of methods for identifying the appropriate patient cohort. Effects of combination drug therapy also need to be considered. VEGF receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which induce tumor hypoxia by blocking vascularization, have been reported to increase metastasis in mouse models (Ebos et al., 2009), which may be mediated by HIF-1; if so, combined use of HIF-1 inhibitors with these drugs may prevent unintended counter-therapeutic effects.

HIF inhibitors may also be useful in the treatment of other diseases in which dysregulated HIF activity is pathogenic. Proof of principle has been established in mouse models of ocular neovascularization, a major cause of blindness in the developed world, in which systemic or intraocular injection of the HIF-1 inhibitor digoxin is therapeutic (Yoshida et al., 2010). Systemic administration of HIF inhibitors for cancer therapy would be contraindicated in patients who also have ischemic cardiovascular disease, in which HIF activity is protective. The analysis of SNPs at the HIF1A locus described above suggests that the population may include HIF hypo-responders, who are at increased risk of severe ischemic cardiovascular disease. It is also possible that HIF hyper-responders, such as individuals with hereditary erythrocytosis, are at increased risk of particularly aggressive cancer.

O2 and Evolution, Part 2

When lowlanders sojourn to high altitude, hypobaric hypoxia induces erythropoiesis, which is a relatively ineffective response because the problem is not insufficient red cells, but rather insufficient ambient O2. Chronic erythrocytosis increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and fetal loss during pregnancy. Many high-altitude Tibetans maintain the same hemoglobin concentration as lowlanders and yet, despite severe hypoxemia, they also maintain aerobic metabolism. The basis for this remarkable evolutionary adaptation appears to have involved the selection of genetic variants at multiple loci encoding components of the oxygen sensing system, particularly HIF-2α (Beall et al., 2010Simonson et al., 2010Yi et al., 2010). Given that hereditary erythrocytosis is associated with modest HIF-2α gain-of-function, the Tibetan genotype associated with absence of an erythrocytotic response to hypoxia may encode reduced HIF-2α activity along with other alterations that increase metabolic efficiency. Delineating the molecular mechanisms underlying these metabolic adaptations may lead to novel therapies for ischemic disorders, illustrating the importance of oxygen homeostasis as a nexus where evolution, biology, and medicine converge.

7.9.4 Hypoxia-inducible factor 1. Regulator of mitochondrial metabolism and mediator of ischemic preconditioning

Semenza GL1.
Biochim Biophys Acta. 2011 Jul; 1813(7):1263-8.

Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) mediates adaptive responses to reduced oxygen availability by regulating gene expression. A critical cell-autonomous adaptive response to chronic hypoxia controlled by HIF-1 is reduced mitochondrial mass and/or metabolism. Exposure of HIF-1-deficient fibroblasts to chronic hypoxia results in cell death due to excessive levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS). HIF-1 reduces ROS production under hypoxic conditions by multiple mechanisms including: a subunit switch in cytochrome c oxidase from the COX4-1 to COX4-2 regulatory subunit that increases the efficiency of complex IV; induction of pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1, which shunts pyruvate away from the mitochondria; induction of BNIP3, which triggers mitochondrial selective autophagy; and induction of microRNA-210, which blocks assembly of Fe/S clusters that are required for oxidative phosphorylation. HIF-1 is also required for ischemic preconditioning and this effect may be due in part to its induction of CD73, the enzyme that produces adenosine. HIF-1-dependent regulation of mitochondrial metabolism may also contribute to the protective effects of ischemic preconditioning.

The story of life on Earth is a tale of oxygen production and utilization. Approximately 3 billion years ago, primitive single-celled organisms evolved the capacity for photosynthesis, a biochemical process in which photons of solar energy are captured by chlorophyll and used to power the reaction of CO2 and H2O to form glucose and O2. The subsequent rise in the atmospheric O2 concentration over the next billion years set the stage for the ascendance of organisms with the capacity for respiration, a process that consumes glucose and O2 and generates CO2, H2O, and energy in the form of ATP. Some of these single-celled organisms eventually took up residence within the cytoplasm of other cells and devoted all of their effort to energy production as mitochondria. Compared to the conversion of glucose to lactate by glycolysis, the complete oxidation of glucose by respiration provided such a large increase in energy production that it made possible the evolution of multicellular organisms. Among metazoan organisms, the progressive increase in body size during evolution was accompanied by progressively more complex anatomic structures that function to ensure the adequate delivery of O2 to all cells, ultimately resulting in the sophisticated circulatory and respiratory systems of vertebrates.

All metazoan cells can sense and respond to reduced O2 availability (hypoxia). Adaptive responses to hypoxia can be cell autonomous, such as the alterations in mitochondrial metabolism that are described below, or non-cell-autonomous, such as changes in tissue vascularization (reviewed in ref. 1). Primary responses to hypoxia need to be distinguished from secondary responses to sequelae of hypoxia, such as the adaptive responses to ATP depletion that are mediated by AMP kinase (reviewed in ref 2). In contrast, recent data suggest that O2 and redox homeostasis are inextricably linked and that changes in oxygenation are inevitably associated with changes in the levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS), as will be discussed below.

HIF-1 Regulates Oxygen Homeostasis in All Metazoan Species

A key regulator of the developmental and physiological networks required for the maintenance of O2homeostasis is hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1). HIF-1 is a heterodimeric transcription factor that is composed of an O2-regulated HIF-1α subunit and a constitutively expressed HIF-1β subunit [3,4]. HIF-1 regulates the expression of hundreds of genes through several major mechanisms. First, HIF-1 binds directly to hypoxia response elements, which are cis-acting DNA sequences located within target genes [5]. The binding of HIF-1 results in the recruitment of co-activator proteins that activate gene transcription (Fig. 1A). Only rarely does HIF-1 binding result in transcriptional repression [6]. Instead, HIF-1 represses gene expression by indirect mechanisms, which are described below. Second, among the genes activated by HIF-1 are many that encode transcription factors [7], which when synthesized can bind to and regulate (either positively or negatively) secondary batteries of target genes (Fig. 1B). Third, another group of HIF-1 target genes encode members of the Jumonji domain family of histone demethylases [8,9], which regulate gene expression by modifying chromatin structure (Fig. 1C). Fourth, HIF-1 can activate the transcription of genes encoding microRNAs [10], which bind to specific mRNA molecules and either block their translation or mediate their degradation (Fig. 1D). Fifth, the isolated HIF-1α subunit can bind to other transcription factors [11,12] and inhibit (Fig. 1E) or potentiate (Fig. 1F) their activity.

Mechanisms by which HIF-1 regulates gene expression. nihms232046f1

Mechanisms by which HIF-1 regulates gene expression. nihms232046f1

Mechanisms by which HIF-1 regulates gene expression.

Fig. 1 Mechanisms by which HIF-1 regulates gene expression. (A) Top: HIF-1 binds directly to target genes at a cis-acting hypoxia response element (HRE) and recruits coactivator proteins such as p300 to increase gene transcription.

HIF-1α and HIF-1β are present in all metazoan species, including the simple roundworm Caenorhabitis elegans [13], which consists of ~103 cells and has no specialized systems for O2 delivery. The fruit flyDrosophila melanogaster evolved tracheal tubes, which conduct air into the interior of the body from which it diffuses to surrounding cells. In vertebrates, the development of the circulatory and respiratory systems was accompanied by the appearance of HIF-2α, which is also O2-regulated and heterodimerizes with HIF-1β [14] but is only expressed in a restricted number of cell types [15], whereas HIF-1α and HIF-1β are expressed in all human and mouse tissues [16]. In Drosophila, the ubiquitiously expressed HIF-1α ortholog is designatedSimilar [17] and the paralogous gene that is expressed specifically in tracheal tubes is designated Trachealess[18].

HIF-1 Activity is Regulated by Oxygen

In the presence of O2, HIF-1α and HIF-2α are subjected to hydroxylation by prolyl-4-hydroxylase domain proteins (PHDs) that use O2 and α-ketoglutarate as substrates and generate CO2 and succinate as by-products [19]. Prolyl hydroxylation is required for binding of the von Hipple-Lindau protein, which recruits a ubiquitin-protein ligase that targets HIF-1α and HIF-2α for proteasomal degradation (Fig. 2). Under hypoxic conditions, the rate of hydroxylation declines and the non-hydroxylated proteins accumulate. HIF-1α transactivation domain function is also O2-regulated [20,21]. Factor inhibiting HIF-1 (FIH-1) represses transactivation domain function [22] by hydroxylating asparagine residue 803 in HIF-1α, thereby blocking the binding of the co-activators p300 and CBP [23].

Negative regulation of HIF-1 activity by oxygen nihms232046f2

Negative regulation of HIF-1 activity by oxygen nihms232046f2

Negative regulation of HIF-1 activity by oxygen

Fig. 2 Negative regulation of HIF-1 activity by oxygen. Top: In the presence of O2: prolyl hydroxylation of HIF-1a leads to binding of the von Hippel-Lindau protein (VHL), which recruits a ubiquitin protein-ligase that targets HIF-1a for proteasomal degradation;

When cells are acutely exposed to hypoxic conditions, the generation of ROS at complex III of the mitochondrial electron transport chain (ETC) increases and is required for the induction of HIF-1α protein levels [24]. More than a decade after these observations were first made, the precise mechanism by which hypoxia increases ROS generation and by which ROS induces HIF-1α accumulation remain unknown. However, the prolyl and asparaginyl hydroxylases contain Fe2+ in their active site and oxidation to Fe3+would block their catalytic activity. Since O2 is a substrate for the hydroxylation reaction, anoxia also results in a loss of enzyme activity. However, the concentration at which O2 becomes limiting for prolyl or asparaginyl hydroxylase activity in vivo is not known.

HIF-1 Regulates the Balance Between Oxidative and Glycolytic Metabolism

All metazoan organisms depend on mitochondrial respiration as the primary mechanism for generating sufficient amounts of ATP to maintain cellular and systemic homeostasis. Respiration, in turn, is dependent on an adequate supply of O2 to serve as the final electron acceptor in the ETC. In this process, electrons are transferred from complex I (or complex II) to complex III, then to complex IV, and finally to O2, which is reduced to water. This orderly transfer of electrons generates a proton gradient across the inner mitochondrial membrane that is used to drive the synthesis of ATP. At each step of this process, some electrons combine with O2 prematurely, resulting in the production of superoxide anion, which is reduced to hydrogen peroxide through the activity of mitochondrial superoxide dismutase. The efficiency of electron transport appears to be optimized to the physiological range of O2 concentrations, such that ATP is produced without the production of excess superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and other ROS at levels that would result in the increased oxidation of cellular macromolecules and subsequent cellular dysfunction or death. In contrast, when O2levels are acutely increased or decreased, an imbalance between O2 and electron flow occurs, which results in increased ROS production.

MEFs require HIF-1 activity to make two critical metabolic adaptations to chronic hypoxia. First, HIF-1 activates the gene encoding pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) kinase 1 (PDK1), which phosphorylates and inactivates the catalytic subunit of PDH, the enzyme that converts pyruvate to acetyl coenzyme A (AcCoA) for entry into the mitochondrial tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle [25]. Second, HIF-1 activates the gene encoding BNIP3, a member of the Bcl-2 family of mitochondrial proteins, which triggers selective mitochondrial autophagy [26]. Interference with the induction of either of these proteins in hypoxic cells results in increased ROS production and increased cell death. Overexpression of either PDK1 or BNIP3 rescues HIF-1α-null MEFs. By shunting pyruvate away from the mitochondria, PDK1 decreases flux through the ETC and thereby counteracts the reduced efficiency of electron transport under hypoxic conditions, which would otherwise increase ROS production. PDK1 functions cooperatively with the product of another HIF-1 target gene, LDHA [27], which converts pyruvate to lactate, thereby further reducing available substrate for the PDH reaction.

PDK1 effectively reduces flux through the TCA cycle and thereby reduces flux through the ETC in cells that primarily utilize glucose as a substrate for oxidative phosphorylation. However, PDK1 is predicted to have little effect on ROS generation in cells that utilize fatty acid oxidation as their source of AcCoA. Hence another strategy to reduce ROS generation under hypoxic conditions is selective mitochondrial autophagy [26]. MEFs reduce their mitochondrial mass and O2 consumption by >50% after only two days at 1% O2. BNIP3 competes with Beclin-1 for binding to Bcl-2, thereby freeing Beclin-1 to activate autophagy. Using short hairpin RNAs to knockdown expression of BNIP3, Beclin-1, or Atg5 (another component of the autophagy machinery) phenocopied HIF-1α-null cells by preventing hypoxia-induced reductions in mitochondrial mass and O2 consumption as a result of failure to induce autophagy [26]. HIF-1-regulated expression of BNIP3L also contributes to hypoxia-induced autophagy [28]. Remarkably, mice heterozygous for the HIF-1α KO allele have a significantly increased ratio of mitochondrial:nuclear DNA in their lungs (even though this is the organ that is exposed to the highest O2 concentrations), indicating that HIF-1 regulates mitochondrial mass under physiological conditions in vivo [26]. In contrast to the selective mitochondrial autophagy that is induced in response to hypoxia as described above, autophagy (of unspecified cellular components) induced by anoxia does not require HIF-1, BNIP3, or BNIP3L, but is instead regulated by AMP kinase [29].

The multiplicity of HIF-1-mediated mechanisms identified so far by which cells regulate mitochondrial metabolism in response to changes in cellular O2 concentration (Fig. 3) suggests that this is a critical adaptive response to hypoxia. The fundamental nature of this physiological response is underscored by the fact that yeast also switch COX4 subunits in an O2-dependent manner but do so by an entirely different molecular mechanism [33], since yeast do not have a HIF-1α homologue. Thus, it appears that by convergent evolution both unicellular and multicellular eukaryotes possess mechanisms by which they modulate mitochondrial metabolism to maintain redox homeostasis despite changes in O2 availability. Indeed, it is the balance between energy, oxygen, and redox homeostasis that represents the key to life with oxygen.

Regulation of mitochondrial metabolism by HIF-1  nihms232046f3

Regulation of mitochondrial metabolism by HIF-1 nihms232046f3

Regulation of mitochondrial metabolism by HIF-1α

Fig. 3 Regulation of mitochondrial metabolism by HIF-1α. Acute hypoxia leads to increased mitochondrial generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Decreased O2 and increased ROS levels lead to decreased HIF-1α hydroxylation (see Fig. 2) and increased HIF-1-dependent 


7.9.5 Regulation of cancer cell metabolism by hypoxia-inducible factor 1

Semenza GL1.
Semin Cancer Biol. 2009 Feb; 19(1):12-6.

The Warburg Effect: The Re-discovery of the Importance of Aerobic Glycolysis in Tumor Cells

The induction of hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) activity, either as a result of intratumoral hypoxia or loss-of-function mutations in the VHL gene, leads to a dramatic reprogramming of cancer cell metabolism involving increased glucose transport into the cell, increased conversion of glucose to pyruvate, and a concomitant decrease in mitochondrial metabolism and mitochondrial mass. Blocking these adaptive metabolic responses to hypoxia leads to cell death due to toxic levels of reactive oxygen species. Targeting HIF-1 or metabolic enzymes encoded by HIF-1 target genes may represent a novel therapeutic approach to cancer.

7.9.6 Coming up for air. HIF-1 and mitochondrial oxygen consumption

Simon MC1.
Cell Metab. 2006 Mar;3(3):150-1.

Hypoxic cells induce glycolytic enzymes; this HIF-1-mediated metabolic adaptation increases glucose flux to pyruvate and produces glycolytic ATP. Two papers in this issue of Cell Metabolism (Kim et al., 2006; Papandreou et al., 2006) demonstrate that HIF-1 also influences mitochondrial function, suppressing both the TCA cycle and respiration by inducing pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1 (PDK1). PDK1 regulation in hypoxic cells promotes cell survival.

Comment on

Oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) occurs in tissues when O2 supply via the cardiovascular system fails to meet the demand of O2-consuming cells. Hypoxia occurs naturally in physiological settings (e.g., embryonic development and exercising muscle), as well as in pathophysiological conditions (e.g., myocardial infarction, inflammation, and solid tumor formation). For over a century, it has been appreciated that O2-deprived cells exhibit increased conversion of glucose to lactate (the “Pasteur effect”). Activation of the Pasteur effect during hypoxia in mammalian cells is facilitated by HIF-1, which mediates the upregulation of glycolytic enzymes that support an increase in glycolytic ATP production as mitochondria become starved for O2, the substrate for oxidative phosphorylation (Seagroves et al., 2001). Thus, mitochondrial respiration passively decreases due to O2 depletion in hypoxic tissues. However, reports by Kim et al. (2006) and Papandreou et al. (2006) in this issue of Cell Metabolism demonstrate that this critical metabolic adaptation is more complex and includes an active suppression of mitochondrial pyruvate catabolism and O2consumption by HIF-1.

Mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation is regulated by multiple mechanisms, including substrate availability. Major substrates include O2 (the terminal electron acceptor) and pyruvate (the primary carbon source). Pyruvate, as the end product of glycolysis, is converted to acetyl-CoA by the pyruvate dehydrogenase enzymatic complex and enters the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. Pyruvate conversion into acetyl-CoA is irreversible; this therefore represents an important regulatory point in cellular energy metabolism. Pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase (PDK) inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase activity by phosphorylating its E1 subunit (Sugden and Holness, 2003). In the manuscripts by Kim et al. (2006) and Papandreou et al. (2006), the authors find that PDK1 is a HIF-1 target gene that actively regulates mitochondrial respiration by limiting pyruvate entry into the TCA cycle. By excluding pyruvate from mitochondrial metabolism, hypoxic cells accumulate pyruvate, which is then converted into lactate via lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), another HIF-1-regulated enzyme. Lactate in turn is released into the extracellular space, regenerating NAD+ for continued glycolysis by O2-starved cells (see Figure 1). This HIF-1-dependent block to mitochondrial O2 consumption promotes cell survival, especially when O2 deprivation is severe and prolonged.



Figure 1. Multiple hypoxia-induced cellular metabolic changes are regulated by HIF-1

By stimulating the expression of glucose transporters and glycolytic enzymes, HIF-1 promotes glycolysis to generate increased levels of pyruvate. In addition, HIF-1 promotes pyruvate reduction to lactate by activating lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). Pyruvate reduction to lactate regenerates NAD+, which permits continued glycolysis and ATP production by hypoxic cells. Furthermore, HIF-1 induces pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1 (PDK1), which inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase and blocks conversion of pyruvate to acetyl CoA, resulting in decreased flux through the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. Decreased TCA cycle activity results in attenuation of oxidative phosphorylation and excessive mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) production. Because hypoxic cells already exhibit increased ROS, which have been shown to promote HIF-1 accumulation, the induction of PDK1 prevents the persistence of potentially harmful ROS levels.

Papandreou et al. demonstrate that hypoxic regulation of PDK has important implications for antitumor therapies. Recent interest has focused on cytotoxins that target hypoxic cells in tumor microenvironments, such as the drug tirapazamine (TPZ). Because intracellular O2 concentrations are decreased by mitochondrial O2 consumption, HIF-1 could protect tumor cells from TPZ-mediated cell death by maintaining intracellular O2 levels. Indeed, Papandreou et al. show that HIF-1-deficient cells grown at 2% O2 exhibit increased sensitivity to TPZ relative to wild-type cells, presumably due to higher rates of mitochondrial O2 consumption. HIF-1 inhibition in hypoxic tumor cells should have multiple therapeutic benefits, but the use of HIF-1 inhibitors in conjunction with other treatments has to be carefully evaluated for the most effective combination and sequence of drug delivery. One result of HIF-1 inhibition would be a relative decrease in intracellular O2 levels, making hypoxic cytotoxins such as TPZ more potent antitumor agents. Because PDK expression has been detected in multiple human tumor samples and appears to be induced by hypoxia (Koukourakis et al., 2005), small molecule inhibitors of HIF-1 combined with TPZ represent an attractive therapeutic approach for future clinical studies.

Hypoxic regulation of PDK1 has other important implications for cell survival during O2 depletion. Because the TCA cycle is coupled to electron transport, Kim et al. suggest that induction of the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex by PDK1 attenuates not only mitochondrial respiration but also the production of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) in hypoxic cells. ROS are a byproduct of electron transfer to O2, and cells cultured at 1 to 5% O2 generate increased mitochondrial ROS relative to those cultured at 21% O2 (Chandel et al., 1998 and Guzy et al., 2005). In fact, hypoxia-induced mitochondrial ROS have also been shown to be necessary for the stabilization of HIF-1 in hypoxic cells (Brunelle et al., 2005Guzy et al., 2005 and Mansfield et al., 2005). However, the persistence of ROS could ultimately be lethal to tissues during chronic O2 deprivation, and PDK1 induction by HIF-1 should promote cell viability during long-term hypoxia. Kim et al. present evidence that HIF-1-deficient cells exhibit increased apoptosis after 72 hr of culture at 0.5% O2 compared to wild-type cells and that cell survival is rescued by enforced expression of exogenous PDK1. Furthermore, PDK1 reduces ROS production by the HIF-1 null cells. These findings support a novel prosurvival dimension of cellular hypoxic adaptation where PDK1 inhibits the TCA cycle, mitochondrial respiration, and chronic ROS production.

The HIF-1-mediated block to mitochondrial O2 consumption via PDK1 regulation also has implications for O2-sensing pathways by hypoxic cells. One school of thought suggests that perturbing mitochondrial O2consumption increases intracellular O2 concentrations and suppresses HIF-1 induction by promoting the activity of HIF prolyl hydroxylases, the O2-dependent enzymes that regulate HIF-1 stability (Hagen et al., 2003 and Doege et al., 2005). This model suggests that mitochondria function as “O2 sinks.” Although Papandreou et al. demonstrate that increased mitochondrial respiration due to PDK1 depletion results in decreased intracellular O2 levels (based on pimonidazole staining), these changes failed to reduce HIF-1 levels in hypoxic cells. Another model for hypoxic activation of HIF-1 describes a critical role for mitochondrial ROS in prolyl hydroxylase inhibition and HIF-1 stabilization in O2-starved cells (Brunelle et al., 2005Guzy et al., 2005 and Mansfield et al., 2005) (see Figure 1). The mitochondrial “O2 sink” hypothesis can account for some observations in the literature but fails to explain the inhibition of HIF-1 stabilization by ROS scavengers (Chandel et al., 1998Brunelle et al., 2005Guzy et al., 2005 and Sanjuán-Pla et al., 2005). While the relationship between HIF-1 stability, mitochondrial metabolism, ROS, and intracellular O2 redistribution will continue to be debated for some time, these most recent findings shed new light on findings by Louis Pasteur over a century ago.

Selected reading

Brunelle et al., 2005

J.K. Brunelle, E.L. Bell, N.M. Quesada, K. Vercauteren, V. Tiranti, M. Zeviani, R.C. Scarpulla, N.S. Chandel

Cell Metab., 1 (2005), pp. 409–414

Article  PDF (324 K) View Record in Scopus Citing articles (357)

Chandel et al., 1998

N.S. Chandel, E. Maltepe, E. Goldwasser, C.E. Mathieu, M.C. Simon, P.T. Schumacker

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 95 (1998), pp. 11715–11720

View Record in Scopus Full Text via CrossRef Citing articles (973)

Doege et al., 2005Doege, S. Heine, I. Jensen, W. Jelkmann, E. Metzen

Blood, 106 (2005), pp. 2311–2317

View Record in Scopus Full Text via CrossRef Citing articles (84)

Guzy et al., 2005

R.D. Guzy, B. Hoyos, E. Robin, H. Chen, L. Liu, K.D. Mansfield, M.C. Simon, U. Hammerling, P.T. Schumacker

Cell Metab., 1 (2005), pp. 401–408

Article  PDF (510 K) View Record in Scopus Citing articles (593)

Hagen et al., 2003

Hagen, C.T. Taylor, F. Lam, S. Moncada

Science, 302 (2003), pp. 1975–1978

View Record in Scopus Full Text via CrossRef Citing articles (450)

7.9.7 HIF-1 mediates adaptation to hypoxia by actively downregulating mitochondrial oxygen consumption

Papandreou I1Cairns RAFontana LLim ALDenko NC.
Cell Metab. 2006 Mar; 3(3):187-97.

The HIF-1 transcription factor drives hypoxic gene expression changes that are thought to be adaptive for cells exposed to a reduced-oxygen environment. For example, HIF-1 induces the expression of glycolytic genes. It is presumed that increased glycolysis is necessary to produce energy when low oxygen will not support oxidative phosphorylation at the mitochondria. However, we find that while HIF-1 stimulates glycolysis, it also actively represses mitochondrial function and oxygen consumption by inducing pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1 (PDK1). PDK1 phosphorylates and inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase from using pyruvate to fuel the mitochondrial TCA cycle. This causes a drop in mitochondrial oxygen consumption and results in a relative increase in intracellular oxygen tension. We show by genetic means that HIF-1-dependent block to oxygen utilization results in increased oxygen availability, decreased cell death when total oxygen is limiting, and reduced cell death in response to the hypoxic cytotoxin tirapazamine.

Comment in

Tissue hypoxia results when supply of oxygen from the bloodstream does not meet demand from the cells in the tissue. Such a supply-demand mismatch can occur in physiologic conditions such as the exercising muscle, in the pathologic condition such as the ischemic heart, or in the tumor microenvironment (Hockel and Vaupel, 2001 and Semenza, 2004). In either the physiologic circumstance or pathologic conditions, there is a molecular response from the cell in which a program of gene expression changes is initiated by the hypoxia-inducible factor-1 (HIF-1) transcription factor. This program of gene expression changes is thought to help the cells adapt to the stressful environment. For example, HIF-1-dependent expression of erythropoietin and angiogenic compounds results in increased blood vessel formation for delivery of a richer supply of oxygenated blood to the hypoxic tissue. Additionally, HIF-1 induction of glycolytic enzymes allows for production of energy when the mitochondria are starved of oxygen as a substrate for oxidative phosphorylation. We now find that this metabolic adaptation is more complex, with HIF-1 not only regulating the supply of oxygen from the bloodstream, but also actively regulating the oxygen demand of the tissue by reducing the activity of the major cellular consumer of oxygen, the mitochondria.

Perhaps the best-studied example of chronic hypoxia is the hypoxia associated with the tumor microenvironment (Brown and Giaccia, 1998). The tumor suffers from poor oxygen supply through a chaotic jumble of blood vessels that are unable to adequately perfuse the tumor cells. The oxygen tension within the tumor is also a function of the demand within the tissue, with oxygen consumption influencing the extent of tumor hypoxia (Gulledge and Dewhirst, 1996 and Papandreou et al., 2005b). The net result is that a large fraction of the tumor cells are hypoxic. Oxygen tensions within the tumor range from near normal at the capillary wall, to near zero in the perinecrotic regions. This perfusion-limited hypoxia is a potent microenvironmental stress during tumor evolution (Graeber et al., 1996 and Hockel and Vaupel, 2001) and an important variable capable of predicting for poor patient outcome. (Brizel et al., 1996Cairns and Hill, 2004Hockel et al., 1996 and Nordsmark and Overgaard, 2004).

The HIF-1 transcription factor was first identified based on its ability to activate the erythropoetin gene in response to hypoxia (Wang and Semenza, 1993). Since then, it is has been shown to be activated by hypoxia in many cells and tissues, where it can induce hypoxia-responsive target genes such as VEGF and Glut1 (Airley et al., 2001 and Kimura et al., 2004). The connection between HIF-regulation and human cancer was directly linked when it was discovered that the VHL tumor suppressor gene was part of the molecular complex responsible for the oxic degradation of HIF-1α (Maxwell et al., 1999). In normoxia, a family of prolyl hydroxylase enzymes uses molecular oxygen as a substrate and modifies HIF-1α and HIF2α by hydroxylation of prolines 564 and 402 (Bruick and McKnight, 2001 and Epstein et al., 2001). VHL then recognizes the modified HIF-α proteins, acts as an E3-type of ubiquitin ligase, and along with elongins B and C is responsible for the polyubiquitination of HIF-αs and their proteosomal degradation (Bruick and McKnight, 2001Chan et al., 2002Ivan et al., 2001 and Jaakkola et al., 2001). Mutations in VHL lead to constitutive HIF-1 gene expression, and predispose humans to cancer. The ability to recognize modified HIF-αs is at least partly responsible for VHL activity as a tumor suppressor, as introduction of nondegradable HIF-2α is capable of overcoming the growth–inhibitory activity of wild-type (wt) VHL in renal cancer cells (Kondo et al., 2003).

Mitochondrial function can be regulated by PDK1 expression. Mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) is regulated by several mechanisms, including substrate availability (Brown, 1992). The major substrates for OXPHOS are oxygen, which is the terminal electron acceptor, and pyruvate, which is the primary carbon source. Pyruvate is the end product of glycolysis and is converted to acetyl-CoA through the activity of the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex of enzymes. The acetyl-CoA then directly enters the TCA cycle at citrate synthase where it is combined with oxaloacetate to generate citrate. In metazoans, the conversion of pyruvate to acetyl-CoA is irreversible and therefore represents a critical regulatory point in cellular energy metabolism. Pyruvate dehydrogenase is regulated by three known mechanisms: it is inhibited by acetyl-CoA and NADH, it is stimulated by reduced energy in the cell, and it is inhibited by regulatory phosphorylation of its E1 subunit by pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase (PDK) (Holness and Sugden, 2003 and Sugden and Holness, 2003). There are four members of the PDK family in vertebrates, each with specific tissue distributions (Roche et al., 2001). PDK expression has been observed in human tumor biopsies (Koukourakis et al., 2005), and we have reported that PDK3 is hypoxia-inducible in some cell types (Denko et al., 2003). In this manuscript, we find that PDK1 is also a hypoxia-responsive protein that actively regulates the function of the mitochondria under hypoxic conditions by reducing pyruvate entry into the TCA cycle. By excluding pyruvate from mitochondrial consumption, PDK1 induction may increase the conversion of pyruvate to lactate, which is in turn shunted to the extracellular space, regenerating NAD for continued glycolysis.

Identification of HIF-dependent mitochondrial proteins through genomic and bioinformatics approaches

In order to help elucidate the role of HIF-1α in regulating metabolism, we undertook a genomic search for genes that were regulated by HIF-1 in tumor cells exposed to hypoxia in vitro. We used genetically matched human RCC4 cells that had lost VHL during tumorigenesis and displayed constitutive HIF-1 activity, and a cell line engineered to re-express VHL to establish hypoxia-dependent HIF activation. These cells were treated with 18 hr of stringent hypoxia (<0.01% oxygen), and microarray analysis performed. Using a strict 2.5-fold elevation as our cutoff, we identified 173 genes that were regulated by hypoxia and/or VHL status (Table S1 in the Supplemental Data available with this article online). We used the pattern of expression in these experiments to identify putative HIF-regulated genes—ones that were constitutively elevated in the parent RCC4s independent of hypoxia, downregulated in the RCC4VHL cells under normoxia, and elevated in response to hypoxia. Of the 173 hypoxia and VHL-regulated genes, 74 fit the putative HIF-1 target pattern. The open reading frames of these genes were run through a pair of bioinformatics engines in order to predict subcellular localization, and 10 proteins scored as mitochondrial on at least one engine. The genes, fold induction, and mitochondrial scores are listed in Table 1.

HIF-1 downregulates mitochondrial oxygen consumption

Having identified several putative HIF-1 responsive gene products that had the potential to regulate mitochondrial function, we then directly measured mitochondrial oxygen consumption in cells exposed to long-term hypoxia. While other groups have studied mitochondrial function under acute hypoxia (Chandel et al., 1997), this is one of the first descriptions of mitochondrial function after long-term hypoxia where there have been extensive hypoxia-induced gene expression changes. Figure 1A is an example of the primary oxygen trace from a Clark electrode showing a drop in oxygen concentration in cell suspensions of primary fibroblasts taken from normoxic and hypoxic cultures. The slope of the curve is a direct measure of the total cellular oxygen consumption rate. Exposure of either primary human or immortalized mouse fibroblasts to 24 hr of hypoxia resulted in a reduction of this rate by approximately 50% (Figures 1A and 1B). In these experiments, the oxygen consumption can be stimulated with the mitochondrial uncoupling agent CCCP (carbonyl cyanide 3-chloro phenylhydrazone) and was completely inhibited by 2 mM potassium cyanide. We determined that the change in total cellular oxygen consumption was due to changes in mitochondrial activity by the use of the cell-permeable poison of mitochondrial complex 3, Antimycin A. Figure 1C shows that the difference in the normoxic and hypoxic oxygen consumption in murine fibroblasts is entirely due to the Antimycin-sensitive mitochondrial consumption. The kinetics with which mitochondrial function slows in hypoxic tumor cells also suggests that it is due to gene expression changes because it takes over 6 hr to achieve maximal reduction, and the reversal of this repression requires at least another 6 hr of reoxygenation (Figure 1D). These effects are not likely due to proliferation or toxicity of the treatments as these conditions are not growth inhibitory or toxic to the cells (Papandreou et al., 2005a).

Since we had predicted from the gene expression data that the mitochondrial oxygen consumption changes were due to HIF-1-mediated expression changes, we tested several genetically matched systems to determine what role HIF-1 played in the process (Figure 2). We first tested the cell lines that had been used for microarray analysis and found that the parental RCC4 cells had reduced mitochondrial oxygen consumption when compared to the VHL-reintroduced cells. Oxygen consumption in the parental cells was insensitive to hypoxia, while it was reduced by hypoxia in the wild-type VHL-transfected cell lines. Interestingly, stable introduction of a tumor-derived mutant VHL (Y98H) that cannot degrade HIF was also unable to restore oxygen consumption. These results indicate that increased expression of HIF-1 is sufficient to reduce oxygen consumption (Figure 2A). We also investigated whether HIF-1 induction was required for the observed reduction in oxygen consumption in hypoxia using two genetically matched systems. We measured normoxic and hypoxic oxygen consumption in murine fibroblasts derived from wild-type or HIF-1α null embryos (Figure 2B) and from human RKO tumor cells and RKO cells constitutively expressing ShRNAs directed against the HIF-1α gene (Figures 2C and 4C). Neither of the HIF-deficient cell systems was able to reduce oxygen consumption in response to hypoxia. These data from the HIF-overexpressing RCC cells and the HIF-deficient cells indicate that HIF-1 is both necessary and sufficient for reducing mitochondrial oxygen consumption in hypoxia.

HIF-dependent mitochondrial changes are functional, not structural

Because addition of CCCP could increase oxygen consumption even in the hypoxia-treated cells, we hypothesized that the hypoxic inhibition was a regulated activity, not a structural change in the mitochondria in response to hypoxic stress. We confirmed this interpretation by examining several additional mitochondrial characteristics in hypoxic cells such as mitochondrial morphology, quantity, and membrane potential. We examined morphology by visual inspection of both the transiently transfected mitochondrially localized DsRed protein and the endogenous mitochondrial protein cytochrome C. Both markers were indistinguishable in the parental RCC4 and the RCC4VHL cells (Figure 3A). Likewise, we measured the mitochondrial membrane potential with the functional dye rhodamine 123 and found that it was identical in the matched RCC4 cells and the matched HIF wt and knockout (KO) cells when cultured in normoxia or hypoxia (Figure 3B). Finally, we determined that the quantity of mitochondria per cell was not altered in response to HIF or hypoxia by showing that the amount of the mitochondrial marker protein HSP60 was identical in the RCC4 and HIF cell lines (Figure 3C)

PDK1 is a HIF-1 inducible target protein

After examination of the list of putative HIF-regulated mitochondrial target genes, we hypothesized that PDK1 could mediate the functional changes that we observed in hypoxia. We therefore investigated PDK1 protein expression in response to HIF and hypoxia in the genetically matched cell systems. Figure 4A shows that in the RCC4 cells PDK1 and the HIF-target gene BNip3 (Greijer et al., 2005 and Papandreou et al., 2005a) were both induced by hypoxia in a VHL-dependent manner, with the expression of PDK1 inversely matching the oxygen consumption measured in Figure 1 above. Likewise, the HIF wt MEFs show oxygen-dependent induction of PDK1 and BNip3, while the HIF KO MEFs did not show any expression of either of these proteins under any oxygen conditions (Figure 4B). Finally, the parental RKO cells were able to induce PDK1 and the HIF target gene BNip3L in response to hypoxia, while the HIF-depleted ShRNA RKO cells could not induce either protein (Figure 4C). Therefore, in all three cell types, the HIF-1-dependent regulation of oxygen consumption seen in Figure 2, corresponds to the HIF-1-dependent induction of PDK1 seen in Figure 4.

In order to determine if PDK1 was a direct HIF-1 target gene, we analyzed the genomic sequence flanking the 5′ end of the gene for possible HIF-1 binding sites based on the consensus core HRE element (A/G)CGTG (Caro, 2001). Several such sites exist within the first 400 bases upstream, so we generated reporter constructs by fusing the genomic sequence from −400 to +30 of the start site of transcription to the firefly luciferase gene. In transfection experiments, the chimeric construct showed significant induction by either cotransfection with a constitutively active HIF proline mutant (P402A/P564G) (Chan et al., 2002) or exposure of the transfected cells to 0.5% oxygen (Figure 4D). Most noteworthy, when the reporter gene was transfected into the HIF-1α null cells, it did not show induction when the cells were cultured in hypoxia, but it did show induction when cotransfected with expression HIF-1α plasmid. We then generated deletions down to the first 36 bases upstream of transcription and found that even this short sequence was responsive to HIF-1 (Figure 4D). Analysis of this small fragment showed only one consensus HRE site located in an inverted orientation in the 5′ untranslated region. We synthesized and cloned a mutant promoter fragment in which the core element ACGTG was replaced with AAAAG, and this construct lost over 90% of its hypoxic induction. These experiments suggest that it is this HRE within the proximal 5′ UTR that HIF-1 uses to transactivate the endogenous PDK1 gene in response to hypoxia.

PDK1 is responsible for the HIF-dependent mitochondrial oxygen consumption changes

In order to directly test if PDK1 was the HIF-1 target gene responsible for the hypoxic reduction in mitochondrial oxygen consumption, we generated RKO cell lines with either knockdown or overexpression of PDK1 and measured the oxygen consumption in these derivatives. The PDK1 ShRNA stable knockdown line was generated as a pool of clones cotransfected with pSUPER ShPDK1 and pTK-hygro resistance gene. After selection for growth in hygromycin, the cells were tested by Western blot for the level of PDK1 protein expression. We found that normoxic PDK1 is reduced by 75%, however, there was measurable expression of PDK1 in these cells in response to hypoxia (Figure 5A). When we measured the corresponding oxygen consumption in these cells, we found a change commensurate with the level of PDK1. The knockdown cells show elevated baseline oxygen consumption, and partial reduction in this activity in response to hypoxia. Therefore, reduction of PDK1 expression by genetic means increased mitochondrial oxygen consumption in both normoxic and hypoxic conditions. Interestingly, these cells still induced HIF-1α (Figure 5A) and HIF-1 target genes such as BNip3L in response to hypoxia (data not shown), suggesting that altered PDK1 levels do not alter HIF-1α function.



PDK1 expression directly regulates cellular oxygen consumption rate

Figure 5. PDK1 expression directly regulates cellular oxygen consumption rate

  1. A)Western blot of RKO cell and ShRNAPDK1RKO cell lysates after exposure to 24 hr of normoxia or 0.5% O2. Blots were probed for HIF 1α, PDK1, and tubulin as a loading control.
  2. B)Oxygen consumption rate in RKO and ShRNAPDK1RKO cells after exposure to 24 hr of normoxia or 0.5% O2.
  3. C)Western blot of RKOiresGUS cell and RKOiresPDK1 cell lysates after exposure to 24 hr of normoxia or 0.5% O2. Blots were probed for HIF 1α, PDK1, and tubulin as a loading control.
  4. D)Oxygen consumption rate in RKOiresGUS and RKOiresPDK1 cells after exposure to 24 hr of normoxia or 0.5% O2.
  5. E)Model describing the interconnected effects of HIF-1 target gene activation on hypoxic cell metabolism. Reduced oxygen conditions causes HIF-1 to coordinately induce the enzymes shown in boxes. HIF-1 activation results in increased glucose transporter expression to increase intracellular glucose flux, induction of glycolytic enzymes increases the conversion of glucose to pyruvate generating energy and NADH, induction of PDK1 decreases mitochondrial utilization of pyruvate and oxygen, and induction of LDH increases the removal of excess pyruvate as lactate and also regenerates NAD+ for increased glycolysis.

For all graphs, the error bars represent the standard error of the mean.

We also determined if overexpression of PDK1 could lead to reduced mitochondrial oxygen consumption. A separate culture of RKO cells was transfected with a PDK1-IRES-puro expression plasmid and selected for resistance to puromycin. The pool of puromycin resistant cells was tested for PDK1 expression by Western blot. These cells showed a modest increase in PDK1 expression under control conditions when compared to the cells transfected with GUS-IRES-puro, with an additional increase in PDK1 protein in response to hypoxia (Figure 5C). The corresponding oxygen consumption measurements showed that the mitochondria is very sensitive to changes in the levels of PDK1, as even this slight increase was able to significantly reduce oxygen consumption in the normoxic PDK1-puro cultures. Further increase in PDK1 levels with hypoxia further reduced oxygen consumption in both cultures (Figure 5D). The model describing the relationship between hypoxia, HIF-1, PDK1, and intermediate metabolism is described inFigure 5E.

Altering oxygen consumption alters intracellular oxygen tension and sensitivity to hypoxia-dependent cell killing

The intracellular concentration of oxygen is a net result of the rate at which oxygen diffuses into the cell and the rate at which it is consumed. We hypothesized that the rate at which oxygen was consumed within the cell would significantly affect its steady-state intracellular concentrations. We tested this hypothesis in vitro using the hypoxic marker drug pimonidazole (Bennewith and Durand, 2004). We plated high density cultures of HIF wild-type and HIF knockout cells and placed these cultures in normoxic, 2% oxygen, and anoxic incubators for overnight treatment. The overnight treatment gives the cells time to adapt to the hypoxic conditions and establish altered oxygen consumption profiles. Pimonidozole was then added for the last 4 hr of the growth of the culture. Pimonidazole binding was detected after fixation of the cells using an FITC labeled anti-pimonidazole antibody and it was quantitated by flow cytometry. The quantity of the bound drug is a direct indication of the oxygen concentration within the cell (Bennewith and Durand, 2004). The histograms in Figure 6A show that the HIF-1 knockout and wild-type cells show similar staining in the cells grown in 0% oxygen. However, the cells treated with 2% oxygen show the consequence of the genetic removal of HIF-1. The HIF-proficient cells showed relatively less pimonidazole binding at 2% when compared to the 0% culture, while the HIF-deficient cells showed identical binding between the cells at 2% and those at 0%. We interpret these results to mean that the HIF-deficient cells have greater oxygen consumption, and this has lowered the intracellular oxygenation from the ambient 2% to close to zero intracellularly. The HIF-proficient cells reduced their oxygen consumption rate so that the rate of diffusion into the cell is greater than the rate of consumption.

Figure 6. HIF-dependent decrease in oxygen consumption raises intracellular oxygen concentration, protects when oxygen is limiting, and decreases sensitivity to tirapazamine in vitro

  1. A)Pimonidazole was used to determine the intracellular oxygen concentration of cells in culture. HIF wt and HIF KO MEFs were grown at high density and exposed to 2% O2or anoxia for 24 hr in glass dishes. For the last 4 hr of treatment, cells were exposed to 60 μg/ml pimonidazole. Pimonidazole binding was quantitated by flow cytometry after binding of an FITC conjugated anti-pimo mAb. Results are representative of two independent experiments.
  2. B)HIF1α reduces oxygen consumption and protects cells when total oxygen is limited. HIF wt and HIF KO cells were plated at high density and sealed in aluminum jigs at <0.02% oxygen. At the indicated times, cells were harvested, and dead cells were quantitated by trypan blue exclusion. Note both cell lines are equally sensitive to anoxia-induced apoptosis, so the death of the HIF null cells indicates that the increased oxygen consumption removed any residual oxygen in the jig and resulted in anoxia-induced death.
  3. C)PDK1 is responsible for HIF-1’s adaptive response when oxygen is limiting. A similar jig experiment was performed to measure survival in the parental RKO, the RKO ShRNAHIF1α, and the RKOShPDK1 cells. Cell death by trypan blue uptake was measured 48 hr after the jigs were sealed.
  4. D)HIF status alters sensitivity to TPZ in vitro. HIF wt and HIF KO MEFs were grown at high density in glass dishes and exposed to 21%, 2%, and <0.01% O2conditions for 18 hr in the presence of varying concentrations of Tirapazamine. After exposure, cells were harvested and replated under normoxia to determine clonogenic viability. Survival is calculated relative to the plating efficiency of cells exposed to 0 μM TPZ for each oxygen concentration.
  5. E)Cell density alters sensitivity to TPZ. HIF wt and HIF KO MEFs were grown at varying cell densities in glass dishes and exposed to 2% O2in the presence of 10 μM TPZ for 18 hr. After the exposure, survival was determined as described in (C).

For all graphs, the error bars represent the standard error of the mean.

HIF-induced PDK1 can reduce the total amount of oxygen consumed per cell. The reduction in the amount of oxygen consumed could be significant if there is a finite amount of oxygen available, as would be the case in the hours following a blood vessel occlusion. The tissue that is fed by the vessel would benefit from being economical with the oxygen that is present. We experimentally modeled such an event using aluminum jigs that could be sealed with defined amounts of cells and oxygen present (Siim et al., 1996). We placed 10 × 106 wild-type or HIF null cells in the sealed jig at 0.02% oxygen, waited for the cells to consume the remaining oxygen, and measured cell viability. We have previously shown that these two cell types are resistant to mild hypoxia and equally sensitive to anoxia-induced apoptosis (Papandreou et al., 2005a). Therefore, any death in this experiment would be the result of the cells consuming the small amount of remaining oxygen and dying in response to anoxia. We found that in sealed jigs, the wild-type cells are more able to adapt to the limited oxygen supply by reducing consumption. The HIF null cells continued to consume oxygen, reached anoxic levels, and started to lose viability within 36 hr (Figure 6B). This is a secondary adaptive effect of HIF1. We confirmed that PDK1 was responsible for this difference by performing a similar experiment using the parental RKO cells, the RKOShRNAHIF1α and the RKOShRNAPDK1 cells. We found similar results in which both the cells with HIF1α knockdown and PDK1 knockdown were sensitive to the long-term effects of being sealed in a jig with a defined amount of oxygen (Figure 6c). Note that the RKOShPDK1 cells are even more sensitive than the RKOShHIF1α cells, presumably because they have higher basal oxygen consumption rates (Figure 5B).

Because HIF-1 can help cells adapt to hypoxia and maintain some intracellular oxygen level, it may also protect tumor cells from killing by the hypoxic cytotoxin tirapazamine (TPZ). TPZ toxicity is very oxygen dependent, especially at oxygen levels between 1%–4% (Koch, 1993). We therefore tested the relative sensitivity of the HIF wt and HIF KO cells to TPZ killing in high density cultures (Figure 6D). We exposed the cells to the indicated concentrations of drug and oxygen concentrations overnight. The cells were then harvested and replated to determine reproductive viability by colony formation. Both cell types were equally resistant to TPZ at 21% oxygen, while both cell types are equally sensitive to TPZ in anoxic conditions where intracellular oxygen levels are equivalent (Figure 6A). The identical sensitivity of both cell types in anoxia indicates that both cell types are equally competent in repairing the TPZ-induced DNA damage that is presumed to be responsible for its toxicity. However, in 2% oxygen cultures, the HIF null cells displayed a significantly greater sensitivity to the drug than the wild-type cells. This suggests that the increased oxygen consumption rate in the HIF-deficient cells is sufficient to lower the intracellular oxygen concentration relative to that in the HIF-proficient cells. The lower oxygen level is significant enough to dramatically sensitize these cells to killing by TPZ.

If the increased sensitivity to TPZ in the HIF ko cells is determined by intracellular oxygen consumption differences, then this effect should also be cell-density dependent. We showed that this is indeed the case in Figure 6E where oxygen and TPZ concentrations were held constant, and increased cell density lead to increased TPZ toxicity. The effect was much more pronounced in the HIF KO cells, although the HIF wt cells showed some increased toxicity in the highest density cultures, consistent with the fact they were still consuming some oxygen, even with HIF present (Figure 1). The in vitro TPZ survival data is therefore consistent with our hypothesis that control of oxygen consumption can regulate intracellular oxygen concentration, and suggests that increased oxygen consumption could sensitize cells to hypoxia-dependent therapy.


The findings presented here show that HIF-1 is actively responsible for regulating energy production in hypoxic cells by an additional, previously unrecognized mechanism. It has been shown that HIF-1 induces the enzymes responsible for glycolysis when it was presumed that low oxygen did not support efficient oxidative phosphorylation (Iyer et al., 1998 and Seagroves et al., 2001). The use of glucose to generate ATP is capable of satisfying the energy requirements of a cell if glucose is in excess (Papandreou et al., 2005a). We now find that at the same time that glycolysis is increasing, mitochondrial respiration is decreasing. However, the decreased respiration is not because there is not enough oxygen present to act as a substrate for oxidative phosphorylation, but because the flow of pyruvate into the TCA cycle has been reduced by the activity of pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase. Other reports have suggested that oxygen utilization is shifted in cells exposed to hypoxia, but these reports have focused on other regulators such as nitric oxide synthase (Hagen et al., 2003). NO can reduce oxygen consumption through direct inhibition of cytochrome oxidase, but this effect seems to be more significant at physiologic oxygen concentrations, not at severe levels seen in the tumor (Palacios-Callender et al., 2004).

7.9.8 HIF-1. upstream and downstream of cancer metabolism

Semenza GL1.
Curr Opin Genet Dev. 2010 Feb; 20(1):51-6

Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) plays a key role in the reprogramming of cancer metabolism by activating transcription of genes encoding glucose transporters and glycolytic enzymes, which take up glucose and convert it to lactate; pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1, which shunts pyruvate away from the mitochondria; and BNIP3, which triggers selective mitochondrial autophagy. The shift from oxidative to glycolytic metabolism allows maintenance of redox homeostasis and cell survival under conditions of prolonged hypoxia. Many metabolic abnormalities in cancer cells increase HIF-1 activity. As a result, a feed-forward mechanism can be activated that drives HIF-1 activation and may promote tumor progression. Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) plays a key role in the reprogramming of cancer metabolism by activating transcription of genes encoding glucose transporters and glycolytic enzymes, which take up glucose and convert it to lactate; pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1, which shunts pyruvate away from the mitochondria; and BNIP3, which triggers selective mitochondrial autophagy. The shift from oxidative to glycolytic metabolism allows maintenance of redox homeostasis and cell survival under conditions of prolonged hypoxia. Many metabolic abnormalities in cancer cells increase HIF-1 activity. As a result, a feed-forward mechanism can be activated that drives HIF-1 activation and may promote tumor progression.

Metastatic cancer is characterized by reprogramming of cellular metabolism leading to increased uptake of glucose for use as both an anabolic and catabolic substrate. Increased glucose uptake is such a reliable feature that it is utilized clinically to detect metastases by positron emission tomography using 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG-PET) with a sensitivity of ~90% [1]. As with all aspects of cancer biology, the details of metabolic reprogramming differ widely among individual tumors. However, the role of specific signaling pathways and transcription factors in this process is now understood in considerable detail. This review will focus on the involvement of hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) in both mediating metabolic reprogramming and responding to metabolic alterations. The placement of HIF-1 both upstream and downstream of cancer metabolism results in a feed-forward mechanism that may play a major role in the development of the invasive, metastatic, and lethal cancer phenotype.

O2 concentrations are significantly reduced in many human cancers compared to the surrounding normal tissue. The median PO2 in breast cancers is ~10 mm Hg, as compared to ~65 mm Hg in normal breast tissue [2]. Reduced O2 availability induces HIF-1, which regulates the transcription of hundreds of genes [3*,4*] that encode proteins involved in every aspect of cancer biology, including: cell immortalization and stem cell maintenance; genetic instability; glucose and energy metabolism; vascularization; autocrine growth factor signaling; invasion and metastasis; immune evasion; and resistance to chemotherapy and radiation therapy [5].

HIF-1 is a transcription factor that consists of an O2-regulated HIF-1α and a constitutively expressed HIF-1β subunit [6]. In well-oxygenated cells, HIF-1α is hydroxylated on proline residue 402 (Pro-402) and/or Pro-564 by prolyl hydroxylase domain protein 2 (PHD2), which uses O2 and α-ketoglutarate as substrates in a reaction that generates CO2 and succinate as byproducts [7]. Prolyl-hydroxylated HIF-1α is bound by the von Hippel-Lindau tumor suppressor protein (VHL), which recruits an E3-ubiquitin ligase that targets HIF-1α for proteasomal degradation (Figure 1A). Asparagine 803 in the transactivation domain is hydroxylated in well-oxygenated cells by factor inhibiting HIF-1 (FIH-1), which blocks the binding of the coactivators p300 and CBP [7]. Under hypoxic conditions, the prolyl and asparaginyl hydroxylation reactions are inhibited by substrate (O2) deprivation and/or the mitochondrial generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which may oxidize Fe(II) present in the catalytic center of the hydroxylases [8].

HIF-1 and metabolism  nihms156580f1

HIF-1 and metabolism nihms156580f1

HIF-1 and metabolism

Figure 1 HIF-1 and metabolism. (A) Regulation of HIF-1α protein synthesis and stability and HIF-1-dependent metabolic reprogramming. The rate of translation of HIF-1α mRNA into protein in cancer cells is dependent upon the activity of the mammalian 

The finding that acute changes in PO2 increase mitochondrial ROS production suggests that cellular respiration is optimized at physiological PO2 to limit ROS generation and that any deviation in PO2 — up or down — results in increased ROS generation. If hypoxia persists, induction of HIF-1 leads to adaptive mechanisms to reduce ROS and re-establish homeostasis, as described below. Prolyl and asparaginyl hydroxylation provide a molecular mechanism by which changes in cellular oxygenation can be transduced to the nucleus as changes in HIF-1 activity. This review will focus on recent advances in our understanding of the role of HIF-1 in controlling glucose and energy metabolism, but it should be appreciated that any increase in HIF-1 activity that leads to changes in cell metabolism will also affect many other critical aspects of cancer biology [5] that will not be addressed here.

HIF-1 target genes involved in glucose and energy metabolism

HIF-1 activates the transcription of SLC2A1 and SLC2A3, which encode the glucose transporters GLUT1 and GLUT3, respectively, as well as HK1 and HK2, which encode hexokinase, the first enzyme of the Embden-Meyerhoff (glycolytic) pathway [9]. Once taken up by GLUT and phosphorylated by HK, FDG cannot be metabolized further; thus, FDG-PET signal is determined by FDG delivery to tissue (i.e. perfusion) and GLUT/HK expression/activity. Unlike FDG, glucose is further metabolized to pyruvate by the action of the glycolytic enzymes, which are all encoded by HIF-1 target genes (Figure 1A). Glycolytic intermediates are also utilized for nucleotide and lipid synthesis [10]. Lactate dehydrogenase A (LDHA), which converts pyruvate to lactate, and monocarboxylate transporter 4 (MCT4), which transports lactate out of the cell (Figure 1B), are also regulated by HIF-1 [9,11]. Remarkably, lactate produced by hypoxic cancer cells can be taken up by non-hypoxic cells and used as a respiratory substrate [12**].

Pyruvate represents a critical metabolic control point, as it can be converted to acetyl coenzyme A (AcCoA) by pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) for entry into the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle or it can be converted to lactate by LDHA (Figure 1B). Pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase (PDK), which phosphorylates and inactivates the catalytic domain of PDH, is encoded by four genes and PDK1 is activated by HIF-1 [13,14]. (Further studies are required to determine whether PDK2PDK3, or PDK4 is regulated by HIF-1.) As a result of PDK1 activation, pyruvate is actively shunted away from the mitochondria, which reduces flux through the TCA cycle, thereby reducing delivery of NADH and FADH2 to the electron transport chain. This is a critical adaptive response to hypoxia, because in HIF-1α–null mouse embryo fibroblasts (MEFs), PDK1 expression is not induced by hypoxia and the cells die due to excess ROS production, which can be ameliorated by forced expression of PDK1 [13]. MYC, which is activated in ~40% of human cancers, cooperates with HIF-1 to activate transcription of PDK1, thereby amplifying the hypoxic response [15]. Pharmacological inhibition of HIF-1 or PDK1 activity increases O2 consumption by cancer cells and increases the efficacy of a hypoxia-specific cytotoxin [16].

Hypoxia also induces mitochondrial autophagy in many human cancer cell lines through HIF-1-dependent expression of BNIP3 and a related BH3 domain protein, BNIP3L [19**]. Autocrine signaling through the platelet-derived growth factor receptor in cancer cells increases HIF-1 activity and thereby increases autophagy and cell survival under hypoxic conditions [21]. Autophagy may also occur in a HIF-1-independent manner in response to other physiological stimuli that are associated with hypoxic conditions, such as a decrease in the cellular ATP:AMP ratio, which activates AMP kinase signaling [22].

In clear cell renal carcinoma, VHL loss of function (LoF) results in constitutive HIF-1 activation, which is associated with impaired mitochondrial biogenesis that results from HIF-1-dependent expression of MXI1, which blocks MYC-dependent expression of PGC-1β, a coactivator that is required for mitochondrial biogenesis [23]. Inhibition of wild type MYC activity in renal cell carcinoma contrasts with the synergistic effect of HIF-1 and oncogenic MYC in activating PDK1 transcription [24].

Genetic and metabolic activators of HIF-1

Hypoxia plays a critical role in cancer progression [2,5] but not all cancer cells are hypoxic and a growing number of O2-independent mechanisms have been identified by which HIF-1 is induced [5]. Several mechanisms that are particularly relevant to cancer metabolism are described below.

Activation of mTOR

Alterations in mitochondrial metabolism

NAD+ levels

It is of interest that the NAD+-dependent deacetylase sirtuin 1 (SIRT1) was found to bind to, deacetylate, and increase transcriptional activation by HIF-2α but not HIF-1α [42**]. Another NAD+-dependent enzyme is poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase 1 (PARP1), which was recently shown to bind to HIF-1α and promote transactivation through a mechanism that required the enzymatic activity of PARP1 [43]. Thus, transactivation mediated by both HIF-1α and HIF-2α can be modulated according to NAD+ levels.

Nitric oxide

Increased expression of nitric oxide (NO) synthase isoforms and increased levels of NO have been shown to increase HIF-1α protein stability in human oral squamous cell carcinoma [44]. In prostate cancer, nuclear co-localization of endothelial NO synthase, estrogen receptor β, HIF-1α, and HIF-2α was associated with aggressive disease and the proteins were found to form chromatin complexes on the promoter of TERT gene encoding telomerase [45**]. The NOS2 gene encoding inducible NO synthase is HIF-1 regulated [5], suggesting another possible feed-forward mechanism.

7.9.9 In Vivo HIF-Mediated Reductive Carboxylation

Gameiro PA1Yang JMetelo AMPérez-Carro R, et al.
Cell Metab. 2013 Mar 5; 17(3):372-85.

Hypoxic and VHL-deficient cells use glutamine to generate citrate and lipids through reductive carboxylation (RC) of α-ketoglutarate. To gain insights into the role of HIF and the molecular mechanisms underlying RC, we took advantage of a panel of disease-associated VHL mutants and showed that HIF expression is necessary and sufficient for the induction of RC in human renal cell carcinoma (RCC) cells. HIF expression drastically reduced intracellular citrate levels. Feeding VHL-deficient RCC cells with acetate or citrate or knocking down PDK-1 and ACLY restored citrate levels and suppressed RC. These data suggest that HIF-induced low intracellular citrate levels promote the reductive flux by mass action to maintain lipogenesis. Using [1–13C] glutamine, we demonstrated in vivo RC activity in VHL-deficient tumors growing as xenografts in mice. Lastly, HIF rendered VHL-deficient cells sensitive to glutamine deprivation in vitro, and systemic administration of glutaminase inhibitors suppressed the growth of RCC cells as mice xenografts.

Cancer cells undergo fundamental changes in their metabolism to support rapid growth, adapt to limited nutrient resources, and compete for these supplies with surrounding normal cells. One of the metabolic hallmarks of cancer is the activation of glycolysis and lactate production even in the presence of adequate oxygen. This is termed the Warburg effect, and efforts in cancer biology have revealed some of the molecular mechanisms responsible for this phenotype (Cairns et al., 2011). More recently, 13C isotopic studies have elucidated the complementary switch of glutamine metabolism that supports efficient carbon utilization for anabolism and growth (DeBerardinis and Cheng, 2010). Acetyl-CoA is a central biosynthetic precursor for lipid synthesis, being generated from glucose-derived citrate in well-oxygenated cells (Hatzivassiliou et al., 2005). Warburg-like cells, and those exposed to hypoxia, divert glucose to lactate, raising the question of how the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle is supplied with acetyl-CoA to support lipogenesis. We and others demonstrated, using 13C isotopic tracers, that cells under hypoxic conditions or defective mitochondria primarily utilize glutamine to generate citrate and lipids through reductive carboxylation (RC) of α-ketoglutarate by isocitrate dehydrogenase 1 (IDH1) or 2 (IDH2) (Filipp et al., 2012Metallo et al., 2012;Mullen et al., 2012Wise et al., 2011).

The transcription factors hypoxia inducible factors 1α and 2α (HIF-1α, HIF-2α) have been established as master regulators of the hypoxic program and tumor phenotype (Gordan and Simon, 2007Semenza, 2010). In addition to tumor-associated hypoxia, HIF can be directly activated by cancer-associated mutations. The von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) tumor suppressor is inactivated in the majority of sporadic clear-cell renal carcinomas (RCC), with VHL-deficient RCC cells exhibiting constitutive HIF-1α and/or HIF-2α activity irrespective of oxygen availability (Kim and Kaelin, 2003). Previously, we showed that VHL-deficient cells also relied on RC for lipid synthesis even under normoxia. Moreover, metabolic profiling of two isogenic clones that differ in pVHL expression (WT8 and PRC3) suggested that reintroduction of wild-type VHL can restore glucose utilization for lipogenesis (Metallo et al., 2012). The VHL tumor suppressor protein (pVHL) has been reported to have several functions other than the well-studied targeting of HIF. Specifically, it has been reported that pVHL regulates the large subunit of RNA polymerase (Pol) II (Mikhaylova et al., 2008), p53 (Roe et al., 2006), and the Wnt signaling regulator Jade-1. VHL has also been implicated in regulation of NF-κB signaling, tubulin polymerization, cilia biogenesis, and proper assembly of extracellular fibronectin (Chitalia et al., 2008Kim and Kaelin, 2003Ohh et al., 1998Thoma et al., 2007Yang et al., 2007). Hypoxia inactivates the α-ketoglutarate-dependent HIF prolyl hydroxylases, leading to stabilization of HIF. In addition to this well-established function, oxygen tension regulates a larger family of α-ketoglutarate-dependent cellular oxygenases, leading to posttranslational modification of several substrates, among which are chromatin modifiers (Melvin and Rocha, 2012). It is therefore conceivable that the effect of hypoxia on RC that was reported previously may be mediated by signaling mechanisms independent of the disruption of the pVHL-HIF interaction. Here we (1) demonstrate that HIF is necessary and sufficient for RC, (2) provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that link HIF to RC, (3) detected RC activity in vivo in human VHL-deficient RCC cells growing as tumors in nude mice, (4) provide evidence that the reductive phenotype ofVHL-deficient cells renders them sensitive to glutamine restriction in vitro, and (5) show that inhibition of glutaminase suppresses growth of VHL-deficient cells in nude mice. These observations lay the ground for metabolism-based therapeutic strategies for targeting HIF-driven tumors (such as RCC) and possibly the hypoxic compartment of solid tumors in general.

Functional Interaction between pVHL and HIF Is Necessary to Inhibit RC

Figure 1  HIF Inactivation Is Necessary for Downregulation of Reductive Carboxylation by pVHL

We observed a concurrent regulation in glucose metabolism in the different VHL mutants. Reintroduction of wild-type or type 2C pVHL mutant, which can meditate HIF-α destruction, stimulated glucose oxidation via pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH), as determined by the degree of 13C-labeled TCA cycle metabolites (M2 enrichment) (Figures 1D and 1E). In contrast, reintroduction of an HIF nonbinding Type 2B pVHL mutant failed to stimulate glucose oxidation, resembling the phenotype observed in VHL-deficient cells (Figures 1D and 1E). Additional evidence for the overall glucose utilization was obtained from the enrichment of M3 isotopomers using [U13-C6]glucose (Figure S1A), which shows a lower contribution of glucose-derived carbons to the TCA cycle in VHL-deficient RCC cells (via pyruvate carboxylase and/or continued TCA cycling).

To test the effect of HIF activation on the overall glutamine incorporation in the TCA cycle, we labeled an isogenic pair of VHL-deficient and VHL-reconstituted UMRC2 cells with [U-13C5]glutamine, which generates M4 fumarate, M4 malate, M4 aspartate, and M4 citrate isotopomers through glutamine oxidation. As seen in Figure S1BVHL-deficient/VHL-positive UMRC2 cells exhibit similar enrichment of M4 fumarate, M4 malate, and M4 asparate (but not citrate) showing that VHL-deficient cells upregulate reductive carboxylation without compromising oxidative metabolism from glutamine. …  Labeled carbon derived from [5-13C1]glutamine can be incorporated into fatty acids exclusively through RC, and the labeled carbon cannot be transferred to palmitate through the oxidative TCA cycle (Figure 1B, red carbons). Tracer incorporation from [5-13C1]glutamine occurs in the one carbon (C1) of acetyl-CoA, which results in labeling of palmitate at M1, M2, M3, M4, M5, M6, M7, and M8 mass isotopomers. In contrast, lipogenic acetyl-CoA molecules originating from [U-13C6]glucose are fully labeled, and the labeled palmitate is represented by M2, M4, M6, M8, M10, M12, M14, and M16 mass isotopomers.

Figure 2 HIF Inactivation Is Necessary for Downregulation of Reductive Lipogenesis by pVHL

To determine the specific contribution from glucose oxidation or glutamine reduction to lipogenic acetyl-CoA, we performed isotopomer spectral analysis (ISA) of palmitate labeling patterns. ISA indicates that wild-type pVHL or pVHL L188V mutant-reconstituted UMRC2 cells relied mainly on glucose oxidation to produce lipogenic acetyl-CoA, while UMRC2 cells reconstituted with a pVHL mutant defective in HIF inactivation (Y112N or Y98N) primarily employed RC. Upon disruption of the pVHL-HIF interaction, glutamine becomes the preferred substrate for lipogenesis, supplying 70%–80% of the lipogenic acetyl-CoA (Figure 2C). This is not a cell-line-specific phenomenon, but it applies to VHL-deficient human RCC cells in general; the same changes are observed in 786-O cells reconstituted with wild-type pVHL or mutant pVHL or infected with vector only as control (Figure S2).

HIF Is Sufficient to Induce RC (reductive carboxylation) from Glutamine in RCC Cells

As shown in Figure 3C, reintroduction of wild-type VHLinto 786-O cells suppressed RC, whereas the expression of the constitutively active HIF-2α mutant was sufficient to stimulate this reaction, restoring the M1 enrichment of TCA cycle metabolites observed in VHL-deficient 786-O cells. Expression of HIF-2α P-A also led to a concomitant decrease in glucose oxidation, corroborating the metabolic alterations observed in glutamine metabolism (Figures 3D and 3E).

Figure 3 Expression of HIF-2α Is Sufficient to Induce Reductive Carboxylation and Lipogenesis from Glutamine in RCC Cells

Expression of HIF-2α P-A in 786-O cells phenocopied the loss-of-VHL with regards to glutamine reduction for lipogenesis (Figure 3G), suggesting that HIF-2α can induce the glutamine-to-lipid pathway in RCC cells per se. Although reintroduction of wild-type VHL restored glucose oxidation in UMRC2 and UMRC3 cells (Figures S3B–S3I), HIF-2α P-A expression did not measurably affect the contribution of each substrate to the TCA cycle or lipid synthesis in these RCC cells (data not shown). UMRC2 and UMRC3 cells endogenously express both HIF-1α and HIF-2α, whereas 786-O cells exclusively express HIF-2α. There is compelling evidence suggesting, at least in RCC cells, that HIF-α isoforms have overlapping—but also distinct—functions and their roles in regulating bioenergetic processes remain an area of active investigation. Overall, HIF-1α has an antiproliferative effect, and its expression in vitro leads to rapid death of RCC cells while HIF-2α promotes tumor growth (Keith et al., 2011Raval et al., 2005).

Metabolic Flux Analysis Shows Net Reversion of the IDH Flux upon HIF Activation

To determine absolute fluxes in RCC cells, we employed 13C metabolic flux analysis (MFA) as previously described (Metallo et al., 2012). Herein, we performed MFA using a combined model of [U-13C6]glucose and [1-13C1]glutamine tracer data sets from the 786-O derived isogenic clones PRC3 (VHL−/ −)/WT8 (VHL+) cells, which show a robust metabolic regulation by reintroduction of pVHL. To this end, we first determined specific glucose/glutamine consumption and lactate/glutamate secretion rates. As expected, PRC3 exhibited increased glucose consumption and lactate production when compared to WT8 counterparts (Figure 4A). While PRC3 exhibited both higher glutamine consumption and glutamate production rates than WT8 (Figure 4A), the net carbon influx was higher in PRC3 cells (Figure 4B). Importantly, the fitted data show that the flux of citrate to α-ketoglutarate was negative in PRC3 cells (Figure 4C). This indicates that the net (forward plus reverse) flux of isocitrate dehydrogenase and aconitase (IDH + ACO) is toward citrate production. The exchange flux was also higher in PRC3 than WT8 cells, whereas the PDH flux was lower in PRC3 cells. In agreement with the tracer data, these MFA results strongly suggest that the reverse IDH + ACO fluxes surpass the forward flux in VHL-deficient cells. The estimated ATP citrate lyase (ACLY) flux was also lower in PRC3 than in WT8 cells. Furthermore, the malate dehydrogenase (MDH) flux was negative, reflecting a net conversion of oxaloacetate into malate in VHL-deficient cells (Figure 4C). This indicates an increased flux through the reductive pathway downstream of IDH, ACO, and ACLY. Additionally, some TCA cycle flux estimates downstream of α-ketoglutarate were not significantly different between PRC and WT8 (Table S1). This shows that VHL-deficient cells maintain glutamine oxidation while upregulating reductive carboxylation (Figure S1B). This finding is in agreement with the higher glutamine uptake observed in VHL-deficient cells. Table S1 shows the metabolic network and complete MFA results. …

Addition of citrate in the medium, in contrast to acetate, led to an increase in the citrate-to-α-ketoglutarate ratio (Figure 5L) and absolute citrate levels (Figure S4H) not only in VHL-deficient but alsoVHL-reconstituted cells. The ability of exogenous citrate, but not acetate, to also affect RC in VHL-reconstituted cells may be explained by compartmentalization differences or by allosteric inhibition of citrate synthase (Lehninger, 2005); that is, the ability of acetate to raise the intracellular levels of citrate may be limited in (VHL-reconstituted) cells that exhibit high endogenous levels of citrate. Whatever the mechanism, the results imply that increasing the pools of intracellular citrate has a direct biochemical effect in cells with regards to their reliance on RC. Finally, we assayed the transcript and protein levels of enzymes involved in the reductive utilization of glutamine and did not observe significant differences between VHL-deficient andVHL-reconstituted UMRC2 cells (Figures S4I and S4J), suggesting that HIF does not promote RC by direct transactivation of these enzymes. The IDH1/IDH2 equilibrium is defined as follows:


Figure 5 Regulation of HIF-Mediated Reductive Carboxylation by Citrate Levels

We sought to investigate whether HIF could affect the driving force of the IDH reaction by also enhancing NADPH production. We did not observe a significant alteration of the NADP+/NADPH ratio between VHL-deficient and VHL-positive cells in the cell lysate (Figure S4I). Yet, we determined the ratio of the free dinucleotides using the measured ratios of suitable oxidized (α-ketoglutarate) and reduced (isocitrate/citrate) metabolites that are linked to the NADP-dependent IDH enzymes. The determined ratios (Figure S4J) are in close agreement with the values initially reported by the Krebs lab (Veech et al., 1969) and showed that HIF-expressing UMRC2 cells exhibit a higher NADP+/NADPH ratio. Collectively, these data strongly suggest that HIF-regulated citrate levels modulate the reductive flux to maintain adequate lipogenesis.

Reductive Carboxylation from Glutamine Is Detectable In Vivo

Figure 6 Evidence for Reductive Carboxylation Activity In Vivo

Loss of VHL Renders RCC Cells Sensitive to Glutamine Deprivation

We hypothesized that VHL deficiency results in cell addiction to glutamine for proliferation. We treated the isogenic clones PRC3 (VHL-deficient cells) and WT8 (VHL-reconstituted cells) with the glutaminase inhibitor 968 (Wang et al., 2010a). VHL-deficient PRC3 cells were more sensitive to treatment with 968, compared to the VHL-reconstituted WT8 cells (Figure 7A). To confirm that this is not only a cell-line-specific phenomenon, we also cultured UMRC2 cells in the presence of 968 or diluent control and showed selective sensitivity of VHL-deficient cells (Figure 7B).

Figure 7 VHL-Deficient Cells and Tumors Are Sensitive to Glutamine Deprivation

(A–E) Cell proliferation is normalized to the corresponding cell type grown in 1 mM glutamine-containing medium. Effect of treatment with glutaminase (GLS) inhibitor 968 in PRC3/WT8 (A) and UMRC2 cells (B). Rescue of GLS inhibition with dimethyl alpha-ketoglutarate (DM-Akg; 4 mM) or acetate (4 mM) in PRC3/WT8 clonal cells (C) and polyclonal 786-O cells (D). Effect of GLS inhibitor BPTES in UMRC2 cells (E). Student’s t test compares VHL-reconstituted cells to control cells in (A), (B), and (E) and DM-Akg or acetate-rescued cells to correspondent control cells treated with 968 only in (C) and (D) (asterisk in parenthesis indicates comparison between VHL-reconstituted to control cells). Error bars represent SEM.

(F) GLS inhibitor BPTES suppresses growth of human UMRC3 RCC cells as xenografts in nu/nu mice. When the tumors reached 100mm3, injections with BPTES or vehicle control were carried out daily for 14 days (n = 12). BPTES treatment decreases tumor size and mass (see insert). Student’s t test compares control to BPTES-treated mice (F). Error bars represent SEM.

(G) Diagram showing the regulation of reductive carboxylation by HIF.

In summary, our findings show that HIF is necessary and sufficient to promote RC from glutamine. By inhibiting glucose oxidation in the TCA cycle and reducing citrate levels, HIF shifts the IDH reaction toward RC to support citrate production and lipogenesis (Figure 7G). The reductive flux is active in vivo, fuels tumor growth, and can potentially be targeted pharmacologically. Understanding the significance of reductive glutamine metabolism in tumors may lead to metabolism-based therapeutic strategies.

Along with others, we reported that hypoxia and loss of VHL engage cells in reductive carboxylation (RC) from glutamine to support citrate and lipid synthesis (Filipp et al., 2012Metallo et al., 2012Wise et al., 2011). Wise et al. (2011) suggested that inactivation of HIF in VHL-deficient cells leads to reduction of RC. These observations raise the hypothesis that HIF, which is induced by hypoxia and is constitutively active inVHL-deficient cells, mediates RC. In our current work, we provide mechanistic insights that link HIF to RC. First, we demonstrate that polyclonal reconstitution of VHL in several human VHL-deficient RCC cell lines inhibits RC and restores glucose oxidation. Second, the VHL mutational analysis demonstrates that the ability of pVHL to mitigate reductive lipogenesis is mediated by HIF and is not the outcome of previously reported, HIF-independent pVHL function(s). Third, to prove our hypothesis we showed that constitutive expression of a VHL-independent HIF mutant is sufficient to phenocopy the reductive phenotype observed in VHL-deficient cells. In addition, we showed that RC is not a mere in vitro phenomenon, but it can be detected in vivo in human tumors growing as mouse xenografts. Lastly, treatment of VHL-deficient human xenografts with glutaminase inhibitors led to suppression of their growth as tumors.

7.9.10 Evaluation of HIF-1 inhibitors as anticancer agents

Semenza GL1.
Drug Discov Today. 2007 Oct; 12(19-20):853-9

Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) regulates the transcription of many genes involved in key aspects of cancer biology, including immortalization, maintenance of stem cell pools, cellular dedifferentiation, genetic instability, vascularization, metabolic reprogramming, autocrine growth factor signaling, invasion/metastasis, and treatment failure. In animal models, HIF-1 overexpression is associated with increased tumor growth, vascularization, and metastasis, whereas HIF-1 loss-of-function has the opposite effect, thus validating HIF-1 as a target. In further support of this conclusion, immunohistochemical detection of HIF-1α overexpression in biopsy sections is a prognostic factor in many cancers. A growing number of novel anticancer agents have been shown to inhibit HIF-1 through a variety of molecular mechanisms. Determining which combination of drugs to administer to any given patient remains a major obstacle to improving cancer treatment outcomes.

Aurelian Udristioiu


Aurelian Udristioiu

Lab Director at Emergency County Hospital Targu Jiu

Mechanisms that control T cell metabolic reprogramming are now coming to light, and many of the same oncogenes importance in cancer metabolism are also crucial to drive T cell metabolic transformations, most notably Myc, hypoxia inducible factor (HIF)1a, estrogen-related receptor (ERR) a, and the mTOR pathway.
The proto-oncogenic transcription factor, Myc, is known to promote transcription of genes for the cell cycle, as well as aerobic glycolysis and glutamine metabolism. Recently, Myc has been shown to play an essential role in inducing the expression of glycolytic and glutamine metabolism genes in the initial hours of T cell activation. In a similar fashion, the transcription factor (HIF)1a can up-regulate glycolytic genes to allow cancer cells to survive under hypoxic conditions

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