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Ann Surg. May 1998; 227(5): 627–636.
PMCID: PMC1191335

Adaptive alterations in cellular metabolism with malignant transformation.


OBJECTIVE: The authors studied the differences between glutamine and glucose utilization in normal fibroblasts and in fibrosarcoma cells to gain insights into the metabolic changes that may occur during malignant transformation. SUMMARY BACKGROUND DATA: The process of malignant transformation requires that cells acquire and use nutrients efficiently for energy, protein synthesis, and cell division. The two major sources of energy for cancer cells are glucose and glutamine. Glutamine is also essential for protein and DNA biosynthesis. We studied glucose and glutamine metabolism in normal and malignant fibroblasts. METHODS: Studies were done in normal rat kidney fibroblasts and in rat fibrosarcoma cells. We measured glutamine transport across the cell membrane, breakdown of glutamine by the enzyme glutaminase (the first step in oxidation), glutamine and glucose oxidation rates to CO2, rates of protein synthesis from glutamine, and glutamine-dependent growth rates. RESULTS: Glutamine transport rates were increased more than sixfold in fibrosarcomas compared to normal fibroblasts. In fibroblasts, glutamine transport was mediated by systems ASC and A. In malignant fibrosarcomas, only system ASC was identifiable, and its Vmax was 15 times higher than that observed in fibroblasts. Despite an increase in transport, glutaminase activity was diminished and glutamine oxidation to CO2 was reduced in fibrosarcomas versus normal fibroblasts. In fibroblasts, glutamine oxidation was 1.8 times higher than glucose oxidation. In contrast, glucose oxidation was 3.5 times greater than glutamine oxidation in fibrosarcomas. Protein synthesis from glutamine transported by fibrosarcomas was threefold greater than that observed in normal fibroblasts. Despite marked increases in glutamine utilization and glucose oxidation in fibrosarcoma cells, growth rates were higher in the normal fibroblasts. CONCLUSIONS: The process of malignant transformation is associated with a marked increase in cellular glutamine transport, which is mediated by a single high-affinity, high-capacity plasma membrane carrier protein. In normal fibroblasts, the transported glutamine is used primarily for energy production via oxidation of glutamine carbons to CO2. In fibrosarcomas, glutamine oxidation falls and glutamine is shunted into protein synthesis; simultaneously, the malignant cell switches to a glucose oxidizer. The increased glutamine transport and glucose oxidation in fibrosarcomas appears to be related to the malignant phenotype and not merely to an increase in cell growth rates.

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