A metabolic core model elucidates how enhanced utilization of glucose and glutamine, with enhanced glutamine-dependent lactate production, promotes cancer cell growth: The WarburQ effect
Cancer cells share several metabolic traits, including aerobic production of lactate from glucose (Warburg effect), extensive glutamine utilization and impaired mitochondrial electron flow. It is still unclear how these metabolic rearrangements, which may involve different molecular events in different cells, contribute to a selective advantage for cancer cell proliferation. To ascertain which metabolic pathways are used to convert glucose and glutamine to balanced energy and biomass production, we performed systematic constraint-based simulations of a model of human central metabolism. Sampling of the feasible flux space allowed us to obtain a large number of randomly mutated cells simulated at different glutamine and glucose uptake rates. We observed that, in the limited subset of proliferating cells, most displayed fermentation of glucose to lactate in the presence of oxygen. At high utilization rates of glutamine, oxidative utilization of glucose was decreased, while the production of lactate from glutamine was enhanced. This emergent phenotype was observed only when the available carbon exceeded the amount that could be fully oxidized by the available oxygen. Under the latter conditions, standard Flux Balance Analysis indicated that: this metabolic pattern is optimal to maximize biomass and ATP production; it requires the activity of a branched TCA cycle, in which glutamine-dependent reductive carboxylation cooperates to the production of lipids and proteins; it is sustained by a variety of redox-controlled metabolic reactions. In a K-ras transformed cell line we experimentally assessed glutamine-induced metabolic changes. We validated computational results through an extension of Flux Balance Analysis that allows prediction of metabolite variations. Taken together these findings offer new understanding of the logic of the metabolic reprogramming that underlies cancer cell growth.