Will intermediary metabolism be a hot field of biology again?

Citric acid cycle

The 3 December issue of Science featured a Special Section on metabolism, headed by an introductory article entitled “Metabolism is Not Boring”.

Way back in the 1920s through the 1950s, intermediary metabolism was a hot field of biology. This culminated in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1953 to Hans Krebs “for his discovery of the citric acid cycle” and Fritz Lipmann “for his discovery of co-enzyme A and its importance for intermediary metabolism”.

As most of you know, that same year, 1953, Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA, which won them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. This began the great era of molecular biology. As the result of the overwhelming success of molecular biology, the study of intermediary metabolism receded into the background. Answering most questions in leading-edge biology required little or no attention to intermediary metabolism. However, as discussed in the review article by Steven L. McKnight included in the Special Section, metabolism is coming to the forefront of biomedicine again. Research problems that require both consideration of molecular biology and of metabolism now appear as interesting and important challenges.

Considerations of intermediary metabolism have always been important in the study of what are known as metabolic diseases, especially type 2 diabetes and obesity and such related conditions as dyslipidemia. However, as detailed both in the McKnight article and in an article by Arnold J. Levine and Anna M. Puzio-Kuter, the study of intermediary metabolism has now also become important in cancer, with the discovery that alterations in metabolic enzymes can result in the production of “oncometabolites” that support the growth of cancer cells.

In an article on this blog dated December 31, 2009, we discussed research in cancer metabolism that is behind the technology platform of Agios Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA). In that article, we highlighted the discovery that mutations in a metabolic enzyme, cytosolic isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH1) are a causative factor in a major subset of human brain cancers. The wild-type form of IDH1 catalyzes the NADP+-dependent oxidative decarboxylation of isocitrate to α-ketoglutarate. However, the mutant forms of IDH1 catalyzes the NADPH-dependent reduction of α-ketoglutarate to R(-)-2-hydroxyglutarate (2HG). 2HG appears to be an oncometabolite that is involved in the progression of low-grade gliomas to lethal secondary glioblastomas. Agios researchers and their academic collaborators later implicated mutations in isocitrate dehydrogenase enzymes and the production of the oncometabolite 2HG in the pathogenesis of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

Also discussed in our article was the Warburg effect, in which cancer cells carry out aerobic glycolysis (conversion of glucose to lactate, with the production of 2 molecules of ATP even in the presence of oxygen). In contrast, most normal mammalian cells metabolize glucose to CO2 and water via glycolysis coupled to the mitochondrial citric acid cycle, generating 36 molecules of ATP. Agios scientific founder and signal-transduction pioneer Lewis Cantley showed that there is a connection between growth factor-mediated signal transduction and aerobic glycolysis in cancer cells. In particular, Dr. Cantley and his colleagues found that pyruvate kinase M2 (PKM2) is a link between signal transduction and aerobic glycolysis. PKM2 binds to tyrosine-phosphorylated signaling proteins, which results in the diversion of glycolytic metabolites from energy production via mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation to anabolic processes required for rapid proliferation of cancer cells.

The McKnight and Levine and Puzio-Kuter papers also discuss the Warburg effect in cancer cells, and the role of mutations in several metabolic enzymes that contribute to malignant phenotypes. The McKnight article notes that in addition to dominant mutations in isocitrate dehydrogenates, rare recessive mutations in fumarate hydratase and succinate dehydrogenase are also associated with cancer. Mutations in the genes for these enzymes, coupled with loss of the wild-type allele, result in elevated intracellular levels of fumarate and succinate, respectively. These appear to act as oncometabolites that can induce activation of the hypoxia response pathway, which triggers the induction of aerobic glycolysis (the Warburg effect) and angiogenesis.

The Levine and Puzio-Kuter paper also discusses the role of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes and their signaling pathways in regulating metabolism and in particular in inducing the Warburg effect. For example, p53 regulation suppresses the Warburg effect and promotes mitochondrial oxidative metabolism. Thus the loss of p53 function seen in most human cancers tends to promote aerobic glycolysis. Other signaling pathways that have been implicated in cancer-associated changes in metabolism include the Akt and mTOR pathways, which are frequently altered by mutations in key genes (e.g., mutations in PTEN and amplifications of such growth factor receptors as Her2 and EGFR) in cancer.  Deregulation of these pathways activates the hypoxia response pathway, thus triggering the Warburg effect.

Levine and Puzio-Kuter suggest that research aimed at a deeper understanding of how cancer-associated signaling pathways regulate biochemical metabolic pathways and trigger the Warburg effect, and the role of the Warburg effect in the pathogenesis of cancer, may lead to novel drug discovery strategies in oncology.

The Special Section on metabolism also includes an article on autophagy, a process by which cells break down cellular components in order to eliminate damaged biomolecules and organelles or to provide substrates for metabolism in case of starvation. Although autophagy promotes the health of cells and can prevent degenerative diseases, it can also enable cancer cells to survive in nutrient poor tumors.

There is also a review by Jay Keasling on metabolic engineering to produce such substances as natural product drugs, chemicals, and biofuels. Metabolic engineering is a branch of synthetic biology that engineers metabolic pathways to produce such substances, hence the inclusion of this review in the Special Section on metabolism. We have several articles on synthetic biology on this blog, most of which focus on metabolic engineering and its role in drug manufacture and drug discovery.

All in all, the 3 December Special Section on metabolism is worth reading by basic researchers, and by drug discovery and development researchers in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. It may broaden your perspectives, and lead to new ideas for R&D or partnering, especially in oncology drug discovery.

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