How Autophagy Feeds Cancer’s Need for Metabolites

Illustration of energy metablism in cell.Metabolism underpins numerous cellular processes. Without it, cells would not grow, divide, synthesize or secrete. Another pathway, autophagy, degrades unwanted cellular materials, helping to maintain cell health. With these opposing roles, is there a connection between autophagy and metabolism? As it turns out, the answer is yes. Because molecules degraded by autophagy are recycled and fed into metabolism pathways as precursor compounds. There are interesting implications as a result of this connection, ones that affect cancer cells as described in a recent Cell Metabolism review article.

Autophagic flux, the process by which molecules and organelles are directed to the autophagosome, fuse with the lysosome and are degraded, involves a selective process that determines the cargo carried within the autophagosome. Autophagy-related genes (ATGs) direct the process and particular receptor proteins bind the cargo. What is interesting about the connection among cancer, autophagy and metabolism is the complexity of the role that autophagy plays in cancer. While autophagy was thought to act in a more tumor suppressive manner as shown when one copy of an ATG6 analogous gene in mice was deleted and the other left unaltered, and malignant tumors developed, but in mice mosaic for ATG5 deletions, the inhibition of autophagy resulted in benign tumors in the liver. This latter experiment suggested autophagy was needed for cancer progression, a hypothesis reinforced by the lack of ATG mutations in human cancers. Continue reading

Finding Chinks in the Armor: Cancer’s Need for Metabolites

Illustration of energy metablism in cell.Cancer has been studied for decades by scientists trying to find a vulnerability to exploit and testing compounds to develop as potential drugs. As the “Emperor of All Maladies”, cancer has proven itself to be a wily beast with many varieties of genetic mutations for eluding cellular control, tireless in its ability to divide and spread. In the end, a cancer cell is still a cell and subject to its environment even though cancer does not play by the same rules as the normal cells that exist around it. To be able to grow, a cell needs access to metabolites, molecules needed for building the materials and machinery needed by the cell to function and divide. These requirements also offer potential pathways to target for halting cancer growth and spread.

All cells use glucose to generate ATP, but normal and cancer cells differ in how glucose is converted to ATP. Most cells use glucose in oxidative phosphorylation, but cancer cells use aerobic glycolysis, converting glucose to lactate without oxygen. This Warburg effect (glucose converted to lactate) is a hallmark of cancer cells as they take up glucose at a much higher rate than normal cells. Blocking glucose uptake is one way to target cancer cells. While 2-deoxyglucose (2DG) has been shown to slow glucose uptake in vitro, the compound proved toxic in clinical trials and lower dosages do not seem to be an effective treatment against cancer. While not an ideal drug target, glucose uptake has been helpful in monitoring cancer response to therapies via fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET). Continue reading