Adaptation of pancreatic cancer cells to nutrient deprivation is reversible and requires glutamine synthetase stabilization by mTORC1

Pei-Yun Tsai, Min-Sik Lee, Unmesh Jadhav, Insia Naqvi, Shariq Madha, Ashley Adler, Meeta Mistry, Sergey Naumenko, Caroline A. Lewis, Daniel S. Hitchcock, Frederick R. Roberts, Peter DelNero, Thomas Hank, Kim C. Honselmann, Vicente Morales Oyarvide, Mari Mino-Kenudson, Clary B. Clish, Ramesh A. Shivdasani, Nada Y. Kalaany
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2021
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) is a lethal, therapy-resistant cancer that thrives in a highly desmoplastic, nutrient-deprived microenvironment. Several studies investigated the effects of depriving PDA of either glucose or glutamine alone. However, the consequences on PDA growth and metabolism of limiting both preferred nutrients have remained largely unknown. Here, we report the selection for clonal human PDA cells that survive and adapt to limiting levels of both glucose and glutamine. We find that adapted clones exhibit increased growth in vitro and enhanced tumor-forming capacity in vivo. Mechanistically, adapted clones share common transcriptional and metabolic programs, including amino acid use for de novo glutamine and nucleotide synthesis. They also display enhanced mTORC1 activity that prevents the proteasomal degradation of glutamine synthetase (GS), the rate-limiting enzyme for glutamine synthesis. This phenotype is notably reversible, with PDA cells acquiring alterations in open chromatin upon adaptation. Silencing of GS suppresses the enhanced growth of adapted cells and mitigates tumor growth. These findings identify nongenetic adaptations to nutrient deprivation in PDA and highlight GS as a dependency that could be targeted therapeutically in pancreatic cancer patients.

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