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Oncoimmunology. 2018 Sep 5;7(12):e1486353. doi: 10.1080/2162402X.2018.1486353. eCollection 2018.

Upregulation of tryptophanyl-tRNA synthethase adapts human cancer cells to nutritional stress caused by tryptophan degradation.

Author information

Brain Cancer Metabolism Group, German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany.
DKTK Clinical Cooperation Unit Neuroimmunology and Brain Tumor Immunology, German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany.
Laboratory of Pediatrics, Section Systems Medicine of Metabolism and Signalling, University of Groningen, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands.
Department for Neuroscience, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Oldenburg, Germany.
Nutrient Metabolism and Signalling Lab, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.
Department of Neurology, University Hospital and Medical Faculty Mannheim, Heidelberg University, Mannheim, Germany.
Department of Arctic and Marine Biology, UiT Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway.
Department of Environmental Immunology, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig, Germany.
Neurology Clinic and National Center for Tumor Diseases, University Hospital of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.


Tryptophan (Trp) metabolism is an important target in immuno-oncology as it represents a powerful immunosuppressive mechanism hijacked by tumors for protection against immune destruction. However, it remains unclear how tumor cells can proliferate while degrading the essential amino acid Trp. Trp is incorporated into proteins after it is attached to its tRNA by tryptophanyl-tRNA synthestases. As the tryptophanyl-tRNA synthestases compete for Trp with the Trp-catabolizing enzymes, the balance between these enzymes will determine whether Trp is used for protein synthesis or is degraded. In human cancers expression of the Trp-degrading enzymes indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase-1 (IDO1) and tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO2) was positively associated with the expression of the tryptophanyl-tRNA synthestase WARS. One mechanism underlying the association between IDO1 and WARS identified in this study is their joint induction by IFNγ released from tumor-infiltrating T cells. Moreover, we show here that IDO1- and TDO2-mediated Trp deprivation upregulates WARS expression by activating the general control non-derepressible-2 (GCN2) kinase, leading to phosphorylation of the eukaryotic translation initiation factor 2α (eIF2α) and induction of activating transcription factor 4 (ATF4). Trp deprivation induced cytoplasmic WARS expression but did not increase nuclear or extracellular WARS levels. GCN2 protected the cells against the effects of Trp starvation and enabled them to quickly make use of Trp for proliferation once it was replenished. Computational modeling of Trp metabolism revealed that Trp deficiency shifted Trp flux towards WARS and protein synthesis. Our data therefore suggest that the upregulation of WARS via IFNγ and/or GCN2-peIF2α-ATF4 signaling protects Trp-degrading cancer cells from excessive intracellular Trp depletion.


3-dioxygenase; Indoleamine-2, 3-dioxygenase; cancer metabolism; immunosuppression; immunosurveillance; inflammation and cancer; nutrients; proliferation; starvation; tRNA synthetase; tryptophan; tryptophan-2; tumor

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