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Autophagy. 2007 Sep-Oct;3(5):502-5. Epub 2007 Jun 20.

Why sick cells produce tumors: the protective role of autophagy.

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University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway, New Jersey, USA.


Cells exploit autophagy for survival to metabolic stress in vitro as well as in tumors where it localizes to regions of metabolic stress suggesting its role as a survival pathway. Consistent with this survival function, deficiency in autophagy impairs cell survival, but also promotes tumor growth, creating a paradox that the loss of a survival pathway leads to tumorigenesis. There is evidence that autophagy is a homeostatic process functioning to limit the accumulation of poly-ubiquitinated proteins and mutant protein aggregates associated with neuronal degeneration. Interestingly, we found that deficiency in autophagy caused by monoallelic loss of beclin1 or deletion of atg5 leads to accelerated DNA damage and chromosomal instability demonstrating a mutator phenotype. These cells also exhibit enhanced chromosomal gains or losses suggesting that autophagy functions as a tumor suppressor by limiting chromosomal instability. Thus the impairment of survival to metabolic stress due to deficiency in autophagy may be compensated by an enhanced mutation rate thereby promoting tumorigenesis. The protective role of autophagy may be exploited in developing novel autophagy modulators as rational chemotherapeutic as well as chemopreventive agents.

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