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Breast Cancer Res. 2019 Jan 23;21(1):11. doi: 10.1186/s13058-018-1095-7.

Methylglyoxal, a glycolysis metabolite, triggers metastasis through MEK/ERK/SMAD1 pathway activation in breast cancer.

Author information

Metastasis Research Laboratory, GIGA-Cancer, University of Liège (ULiège), Pathology Tour, +4 level, Building 23, Avenue Hippocrate 13, 4000, Liège, Belgium.
Genomics Platform, GIGA, ULiège, Liège, Belgium.
Department of Information Technology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium.
Translational Cancer Research Unit, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.
Laboratory of Experimental Pathology, GIGA-Cancer, ULiège, Liège, Belgium.
Laboratory of Connective Tissues Biology, GIGA-Cancer, ULiège, Liège, Belgium.
Laboratory for Metabolism and Vascular Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands.
Laboratory of Hematology, GIGA-Inflammation, Infection and Immunity, ULiège, Liège, Belgium.
Institut de Recherche en Cancérologie de Montpellier, Inserm U1194, Montpellier, France.
Metastasis Research Laboratory, GIGA-Cancer, University of Liège (ULiège), Pathology Tour, +4 level, Building 23, Avenue Hippocrate 13, 4000, Liège, Belgium.



Elevated aerobic glycolysis rate is a biochemical alteration associated with malignant transformation and cancer progression. This metabolic shift unavoidably generates methylglyoxal (MG), a potent inducer of dicarbonyl stress through the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). We have previously shown that the silencing of glyoxalase 1 (GLO1), the main MG detoxifying enzyme, generates endogenous dicarbonyl stress resulting in enhanced growth and metastasis in vivo. However, the molecular mechanisms through which MG stress promotes metastasis development remain to be unveiled.


In this study, we used RNA sequencing analysis to investigate gene-expression profiling of GLO1-depleted breast cancer cells and we validated the regulated expression of selected genes of interest by RT-qPCR. Using in vitro and in vivo assays, we demonstrated the acquisition of a pro-metastatic phenotype related to dicarbonyl stress in MDA-MB-231, MDA-MB-468 and MCF7 breast cancer cellular models. Hyperactivation of MEK/ERK/SMAD1 pathway was evidenced using western blotting upon endogenous MG stress and exogenous MG treatment conditions. MEK and SMAD1 regulation of MG pro-metastatic signature genes in breast cancer cells was demonstrated by RT-qPCR.


High-throughput transcriptome profiling of GLO1-depleted breast cancer cells highlighted a pro-metastatic signature that establishes novel connections between MG dicarbonyl stress, extracellular matrix (ECM) remodeling by neoplastic cells and enhanced cell migration. Mechanistically, we showed that these metastasis-related processes are functionally linked to MEK/ERK/SMAD1 cascade activation in breast cancer cells. We showed that sustained MEK/ERK activation in GLO1-depleted cells notably occurred through the down-regulation of the expression of dual specificity phosphatases in MG-stressed breast cancer cells. The use of carnosine and aminoguanidine, two potent MG scavengers, reversed MG stress effects in in vitro and in vivo experimental settings.


These results uncover for the first time the key role of MG dicarbonyl stress in the induction of ECM remodeling and the activation of migratory signaling pathways, both in favor of enhanced metastatic dissemination of breast cancer cells. Importantly, the efficient inhibition of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling using MG scavengers further emphasizes the need to investigate their therapeutic potential across different malignancies.


Breast cancer; Carnosine; MAPK; Metastasis; Methylglyoxal; SMAD1

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