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Brain Cancer: Hunger for Amino Acids Makes It More Aggressive

No. 35 | 24/06/2013 | by Koh

An enzyme that facilitates the breakdown of specific amino acids makes brain cancers particularly aggressive. Scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) discovered this in an attempt to find new targets for therapies against this dangerous disease. They have reported their findings in the journal “Nature Medicine”.

Glioblastoma cells
© dkfz.de

To fuel phases of fast and aggressive growth, tumors need higher-than-normal amounts of energy and the molecular building blocks needed to build new cellular components. Cancer cells therefore consume a lot of sugar (glucose). A number of tumors are also able to catabolize the amino acid glutamine, an important building block of proteins. A key enzyme in amino acid decomposition is isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH). Several years ago, scientists discovered mutations in the gene coding for IDH in numerous types of brain cancer. Very malignant brain tumors called primary glioblastomas carry an intact IDH gene, whereas those that grow more slowly usually have a defective form.

“The study of the IDH gene currently is one of the most important diagnostic criteria for differentiating glioblastomas from other brain cancers that grow more slowly,” says Dr. Bernhard Radlwimmer from the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ). “We wanted to find out what spurs the aggressive growth of glioblastomas.” In collaboration with scientists from other institutes including Heidelberg University Hospital, Dr. Martje Tönjes and Dr. Sebastian Barbus from Radlwimmer’s team compared gene activity profiles from several hundred brain tumors. They aimed to find out whether either altered or intact IDH show further, specific genetic characteristics that might help explain the aggressiveness of the disease.

The researchers found a significant difference between the two groups in the highly increased activity of the gene for the BCAT1 enzyme, which in normal brain tissue is responsible for breaking down so-called branched-chain amino acids. However, Radlwimmer’s team discovered, only those tumor cells whose IDH gene is not mutated produce BCAT1. “This is not surprising, because as IDH breaks down amino acids, it produces ketoglutarate – a molecule which BCAT1 needs. This explains why BCAT1 is produced only in tumor cells carrying intact IDH. The two enzymes seem to form a kind of functional unit in amino acid catabolism,” says Bernhard Radlwimmer.

Glioblastomas are particularly dreaded because they aggressively invade the healthy brain tissue that surrounds them. When the researchers used a pharmacological substance to block BCAT1’s effects, the tumor cells lost their invasive capacity. In addition, the cells released less of the glutamate neurotransmitter. High glutamate release is responsible for severe neurological symptoms such as epileptic seizures, which are frequently associated with the disease. When transferred to mice, glioblastoma cells in which the BCAT1 gene had been blocked no longer grew into tumors.

“Altogether, we can see that overexpression of BCAT1 contributes to the aggressiveness of glioblastoma cells,” Radlwimmer says. The study suggests that the two enzymes, BCAT1 and IDH, cooperate in the decomposition of branched-chain amino acids. These protein building blocks appear to act as a “food source” that increases the cancer cells’ aggressiveness. Branched-chain amino acids also play a significant role in metabolic diseases such as diabetes. This is the first time that scientists have been able to show the role of these amino acids in the growth of malignant tumors.

“The good news,” sums up Radlwimmer, “is that we have found another target for therapies in BCAT1. In collaboration with Bayer Healthcare, we have already started searching for agents that might be specifically directed against this enzyme.” The researchers also plan to investigate whether BCAT1 expression may serve as an additional marker to diagnose the malignancy of brain cancer.

The project was funded by the National Genome Research Network (NGFN).

M. Tönjes, S. Barbus, Y.J. Park, W. Wang, M. Schlotter, A.M. Lindroth, S.V. Pleier, A.H.C. Bai, D. Karra, R.M. Piro, J. Felsberg, A. Addington, D. Lemke, I. Weibrecht, V. Hovestadt, C.G. Rolli, B. Campos, S. Turcan, D. Sturm, H. Witt, T.A. Chan, C. Herold-Mende, R. Kemkemer, R. König, K. Schmidt, W.E. Hull, S.M. Pfister, M. Jugold, S.M. Hutson, C. Plass, J.G. Okun, G. Reifenberger, P. Lichter, B. Radlwimmer: BCAT1 promotes cell proliferation via amino acid catabolism in gliomas carrying wildtype IDH1. Nature Medicine 2013, DOI: 10.1038/nm.3217

A picture illustrating the press release is available on the internet:
http://www.dkfz.de/de/presse/pressemitteilungen/2013/images/Morphology-control-cells.jpg

Picture caption: Glioblastoma cells (B. Radlwimmer, DKFZ)

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. More than 1,300 scientists at the DKFZ investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and search for new strategies to prevent people from developing cancer. They are developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to all questions on cancer.

Jointly with partners from the university hospitals, the DKFZ operates the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg and Dresden, and the Hopp Children's Cancer Center KiTZ in Heidelberg. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of the six German Centers for Health Research, the DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partner locations. NCT and DKTK sites combine excellent university medicine with the high-profile research of the DKFZ. They contribute to the endeavor of transferring promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improving the chances of cancer patients.

The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.

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