A Holistic View of Cancer Bioenergetics: Mitochondrial Function and Respiration Play Fundamental Roles in the Development and Progression of Diverse Tumors



Since Otto Warburg made the first observation that tumor cells exhibit altered metabolism and bioenergetics in the 1920s, many scientists have tried to further the understanding of tumor bioenergetics. Particularly, in the past decade, the application of the state-of the-art metabolomics and genomics technologies has revealed the remarkable plasticity of tumor metabolism and bioenergetics. Firstly, a wide array of tumor cells have been shown to be able to use not only glucose, but also glutamine for generating cellular energy, reducing power, and metabolic building blocks for biosynthesis. Secondly, many types of cancer cells generate most of their cellular energy via mitochondrial respiration and oxidative phosphorylation. Glutamine is the preferred substrate for oxidative phosphorylation in tumor cells. Thirdly, tumor cells exhibit remarkable versatility in using bioenergetics substrates. Notably, tumor cells can use metabolic substrates donated by stromal cells for cellular energy generation via oxidative phosphorylation. Further, it has been shown that mitochondrial transfer is a critical mechanism for tumor cells with defective mitochondria to restore oxidative phosphorylation. The restoration is necessary for tumor cells to gain tumorigenic and metastatic potential. It is also worth noting that heme is essential for the biogenesis and proper functioning of mitochondrial respiratory chain complexes. Hence, it is not surprising that recent experimental data showed that heme flux and function are elevated in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cells and that elevated heme function promotes intensified oxygen consumption, thereby fueling tumor cell proliferation and function. Finally, emerging evidence increasingly suggests that clonal evolution and tumor genetic heterogeneity contribute to bioenergetic versatility of tumor cells, as well as tumor recurrence and drug resistance. Although mutations are found only in several metabolic enzymes in tumors, diverse mutations in signaling pathways and networks can cause changes in the expression and activity of metabolic enzymes, which likely enable tumor cells to gain their bioenergetic versatility. A better understanding of tumor bioenergetics should provide a more holistic approach to investigate cancer biology and therapeutics. This review therefore attempts to comprehensively consider and summarize the experimental data supporting our latest view of cancer bioenergetics.


Correction published 2018-03.


Bioenergetics, Glutamine, Heme, Hemoproteins, Oxidative Phosphorylation



CC BY 4.0 (Attribution), ©2016 The Authors.