Causes and consequences of acidic pH in tumors: a magnetic resonance study

Adv Enzyme Regul. 1999;39:13-30. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2571(98)00018-1.


A consequence of metabolism in any tissue is the formation of hydrogen ions, which are actively transported out of the cell. However, although most solid tumors maintain their intracellular pH (pHi) within a narrow range to provide a favorable environment for various intracellular activities, their extracellular pH (pHe) is on average about 0.2 pH units more acid. It is important to understand the relationship between tumor metabolism and pH, and how it differs from that of normal tissue and to ask the question: How does an understanding of pH and tumor metabolism affect strategies for therapeutic approaches? Although, in vitro, isolated cell experiments have shown positive correlations between pHi and pHe the relationship is complex and somewhat dependent on experimental conditions. Measurement of pHi in solid tumors by non-invasive Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) has been possible for some time now and recently several specific markers for measuring pHe have become available. As a result we have been able to study the relationship between pHi and pHe in vivo in several different solid tumor types. In only one tumor type (HT29 xenografts) was there a significant correlation between pHi and pHe; in 3 other tumor types (RIF-1 in mice, GH3 prolactinomas and H9618a in rats) there was no correlation. A significant correlation between pHi and NTP/Pi ratios was seen across all tumor types. Theoretical considerations of causes of tumor acidity, hypotheses to explain extracellular acidity and the possibility that low pHe might be an intrinsic feature of the tumor phenotype and not merely the consequence of metabolic activity have been discussed. In addition the consquences for concepts of treatment based on pH are considered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Lactic Acid / metabolism
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Models, Biological
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / metabolism
  • Nucleotides / metabolism
  • Rats


  • Nucleotides
  • Lactic Acid
  • Adenosine Triphosphate