Many scientists have tried killing tumors by taking away their favorite food, a sugar called glucose. Unfortunately, this treatment approach not only fails to work, it backfires--glucose-starved tumors get more aggressive. In a new study, researchers discovered that the protein PKCz is responsible for this paradox. The research suggests that glucose depletion therapies might work, as long as the cancer cells produce PKCz.
Tumor cells have high-energetic and anabolic needs and are known to adapt their metabolism to be able to survive and keep proliferating under conditions of nutrient stress. We show that PKCζ deficiency promotes the plasticity necessary for cancer cells to reprogram their metabolism to utilize glutamine through the serine biosynthetic pathway in the absence of glucose. PKCζ represses the expression of two key enzymes of the pathway, PHGDH and PSAT1, and phosphorylates PHGDH at key residues to inhibit its enzymatic activity. Interestingly, the loss of PKCζ in mice results in enhanced intestinal tumorigenesis and increased levels of these two metabolic enzymes, whereas patients with low levels of PKCζ have a poor prognosis. Furthermore, PKCζ and caspase-3 activities are correlated with PHGDH levels in human intestinal tumors. Taken together, this demonstrates that PKCζ is a critical metabolic tumor suppressor in mouse and human cancer.