Posts Tagged ‘metabolic reprogramming’

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

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

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

Mammalian cells have a variety of mechanisms to metabolize ammonia including

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


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

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

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














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

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

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

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




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

Metabolic recycling of ammonia via glutamate dehydrogenase supports breast cancer biomass

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

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

* *Corresponding author. Email:

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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



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

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

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

New Insights on the Warburg Effect [2.2]

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

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

Warburg Effect and Mitochondrial Regulation- 2.1.3

Refined Warburg Hypothesis -2.1.2



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H2S-mediated protein sulfhydration in stress reveals metabolic reprogramming

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator




Quantitative H2S-mediated protein sulfhydration reveals metabolic reprogramming during the Integrated Stress Response

” data-author-inst=”CaseWesternReserveUniversityUnitedStates”>Bo-JhihGuan, 

Ilya Bederman
Department of Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, United States
No competing interests declared

” data-author-inst=”CaseWesternReserveUniversityUnitedStates”>IlyaBederman, 

Mithu Majumder
Department of Pharmacology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, United States
No competing interests declared

” data-author-inst=”CaseWesternReserveUniversityUnitedStates”>MithuMajumder, et al.
eLife 2015;10.7554/eLife.10067

The sulfhydration of cysteine residues in proteins is an important mechanism involved in diverse biological processes. We have developed a proteomics approach to quantitatively profile the changes of sulfhydrated cysteines in biological systems. Bioinformatics analysis revealed that sulfhydrated cysteines are part of a wide range of biological functions. In pancreatic β cells exposed to endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, elevated H2S promotes the sulfhydration of enzymes in energy metabolism and stimulates glycolytic flux. We propose that transcriptional and translational reprogramming by the Integrated Stress Response (ISR) in pancreatic β cells is coupled to metabolic alternations triggered by sulfhydration of key enzymes in intermediary metabolism.
Posttranslational modification is a fundamental mechanism in the regulation of structure and function of proteins. The covalent modification of specific amino acid residues influences diverse biological processes and cell physiology across species. Reactive cysteine residues in proteins have high nucleophilicity and low pKa values and serve as a major target for oxidative modifications, which can vary depending on the subcellular environment, including the type and intensity of intracellular or environmental cues. Oxidative environments cause different post-translational cysteine modifications, including disulfide bond formation (-S-S-), sulfenylation (-S-OH), nitrosylation (-S-NO), glutathionylation (-S-SG), and sulfhydration (-S-SH) (also called persulfidation) (Finkel, 2012; Mishanina et al., 2015). In the latter, an oxidized cysteine residue included glutathionylated, 60 sulfenylated and nitrosylated on a protein reacts with the sulfide anion to form a cysteine persulfide. The reversible nature of this modification provides a mechanism to fine tune biological processes in different cellular redox states. Sulfhydration coordinates with other post-translational protein modifications such as phosphorylation and nitrosylation to regulate cellular functions (Altaany et al., 2014; Sen et al., 2012). Despite great progress in bioinformatics and advanced mass spectroscopic techniques (MS), identification of different cysteine-based protein modifications has been slow compared to other post-translational modifications. In the case of sulfhydration, a small number of proteins have been identified, among them the glycolytic enzyme glyceraldehyde phosphate dehydrogenase, GAPDH (Mustafa et al., 2009). Sulfhydrated GAPDH at Cys150 exhibits an increase in its catalytic activity, in contrast to the inhibitory effects of nitrosylation or glutathionylation of the same cysteine residue (Mustafa et al., 2009; Paul and Snyder, 2012). The biological significance of the Cys150 modification by H2S is not well-studied, but H2S could serve as a biological switch for protein function acting via oxidative modification of specific cysteine residues in response to redox homeostasis (Paul and Snyder, 2012). Understanding the physiological significance of protein sulfhydration requires the development of genome-wide innovative experimental approaches. Current methodologies based on the modified biotin switch technique do not allow detection of a broad spectrum of sulfhydrated proteins (Finkel, 2012). Guided by a previously reported strategy (Sen et al., 2012), we developed an experimental approach that allowed us to quantitatively evaluate the sulfhydrated proteome and the physiological consequences of H2S synthesis during chronic ER stress. The new methodology allows a quantitative, close-up view of the integrated cellular response to environmental and intracellular cues, and is pertinent to our understanding of human disease development.
The ER is an organelle involved in synthesis of proteins followed by various modifications. Disruption of this process results in the accumulation of misfolded proteins, causing ER stress (Tabas and Ron, 2011; Walter and Ron, 2011), which is associated with development of many diseases ranging from metabolic dysfunction to neurodegeneration (Hetz, 2012). ER stress induces transcriptional, translational, and metabolic reprogramming, all of which are interconnected through the transcription factor Atf4. Atf4 increases expression of genes promoting adaptation to stress via their protein products. One such gene is the H2S-producing enzyme, γ-cystathionase (CTH), previously shown to be involved in the signaling pathway that negatively regulates the activity of the protein tyrosine phosphatase 1B (PTP1B) via sulfhydration (Krishnan et al., 2011). We therefore hypothesized that low or even modest levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) during ER stress may reprogram cellular metabolism via H2S-mediated protein sulfhydration (Figure 1A).
In summary, sulfhydration of specific cysteines in proteins is a key function of H2S (Kabil and Banerjee, 2010; Paul and Snyder, 2012; Szabo et al., 2013). Thus, the development of tools that can quantitatively measure genome-wide protein sulfhydration in physiological or pathological conditions is of central importance. However, a significant challenge in studies of the biological significance of protein sulfhydration is the lack of an approach to selectively detect sulfhydrated cysteines from other modifications (disulfide bonds, glutathionylated thiols and sulfienic acids) in complex biological samples. In this study, we introduced the BTA approach that allowed the quantitative assessment of changes in the sulfhydration of specific cysteines in the proteome and in individual proteins. BTA is superior to other reported methodologies that aimed to profile cysteine modifications, such as the most commonly used, a modified biotin switch technique (BST). BST was originally designed to study protein nitrosylation and postulated to differentiate free thiols and persulfides (Mustafa et al., 2009). A key advantage of BTA over the existing methodologies, is that the experimental approach has steps to avoid false-positive and negative results, as target proteins for sulfhydration. BST is commonly generating such false targets for cysteine modifications (Forrester et al., 2009; Sen et al., 2012). Using mutiple validations, our data support the specificity and reliability of the BTA assay for analysis of protein sulfhydration both in vitro and in vivo. With this approach, we found that ATF4 is the master regulator of protein sulfhydration in pancreatic β cells during ER stress, by means of its function as a transcription factor. A large number of protein targets have been discovered to undergo sulfhydration in β cells by the BTA approach. Almost 1,000 sulfhydrated cysteine- containing peptides were present in the cells under the chronic ER stress condition of treatment with Tg for 18 h. Combined with the isotopic-labeling strategy, almost 820 peptides on more than 500 proteins were quantified in the 405 cells overexpressing ATF4. These data show the potential of the BTA method for further systematic studies of biological events. To our knowledge, the current dataset encompasses most known sulfhydrated cysteine residues in proteins in any organism. Our bioinformatics analyses revealed sulfhydrated cysteine residues located on a variety of structure-function domains, suggesting the possibility of regulatory mechanism(s) mediated by protein sulfhydration. Structure and sequence analysis revealed consensus motifs that favor sulfhydration; an arginine residue and alpha-helix dipoles are both contributing to stabilize sulfhydrated cysteine thiolates in the local environment.
Pathway analyses showed that H2S-mediated sulfhydration of cysteine residues is that part of the ISR with the highest enrichment in proteins involved in energy metabolism. The metabolic flux revealed that H2S promotes aerobic glycolysis associated with decreased oxidative phosphorylation in mitochondria during ER stress in β cells. The TCA cycle revolves by the action of the respiratory chain that requires oxygen to operate. In response to ER stress, mitochondrial function and cellular respiration are down-regulated to limit oxygen demand and to sustain mitochondria. When ATP production from the TCA cycle becomes limited and glycolytic flux increases, there is a risk of accumulation of lactate from pyruvate. One way to escape accumulation of lactate is the mitochondrial conversion of pyruvate to oxalacetic acid (OAA) by pyruvate carboxylase. This latter enzyme was found to be sulfhydrated, consistent with the notion that sulfhydration is linked to metabolic reprogramming towards glycolysis.
The switch of energy production from mitochondria to glycolysis is known as a signature of hypoxic conditions. This metabolic switch has also been observed in many cancer cells characterized as the Warburg effect, which contributes to tumor growth. The Warburg effect provides advantages to cancer cell survival via the rapid ATP production through glycolysis, as well as the increased conversion of glucose into anabolic biomolecules (amino acid, nucleic acid and lipid biosynthesis) and reducing power (NADPH) for regeneration of antioxidants. This metabolic response of tumor cells contributes to tumor growth and metastasis (Vander Heiden et al., 2009). By analogy, the aerobic glycolysis trigged by increased H2S production could give β cells the capability to acquire ATP and nutrients to adapt their cellular metabolism towards maintaining ATP levels in the ER (Vishnu et al., 2014), increasing synthesis of glycerolphospholipids, glycoproteins and protein (Krokowski et al., 2013b), all important components of the ISR. Similar to hypoxic conditions, a phenotype associated with most tumors, the decreased mitochondria function in β cells during ER stress, can also be viewed as an adaptive response by limiting mitochondria ROS and mitochondria-mediated apoptosis. We therefore view that the H2S-mediated increase in glycolysis is an adaptive mechanism for survival of β cells to chronic ER stress, along with the improved ER function and insulin production and folding, both critical factors controlling hyperglycemia in diabetes. Future work should determine which are the key proteins targeted by H2S and thus contributing to metabolic reprogramming of β cells, and if and how insulin synthesis and secretion is affected by sulfhydration of these proteins during ER stress.
Abnormal H2S metabolism has been reported to occur in various diseases, mostly through the deregulation of gene expression encoding for H2S-generating enzymes (Wallace and Wang, 2015). An increase of their levels by stimulants is expected to have similar effects on sulfhydration of proteins like the ATF4- induced CTH under conditions of ER stress. It is the levels of H2S under oxidative conditions that influence cellular functions. In the present study, ER stress in β cells induced elevated Cth levels, whereas CBS was unaffected. The deregulated oxidative modification at cysteine residues by H2S may be a major contributing factor to disease development. In this case, it would provide a rationale for the design of therapeutic agents that would modulate the activity of the involved enzymes.

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