Arginine deprivation, growth inhibition and tumour cell death: 2. Enzymatic degradation of arginine in normal and malignant cell cultures

Br J Cancer. 2003 Feb 24;88(4):613-23. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6600681.


Arginase added to culture medium reduced arginine to negligible levels within approximately 6 h, and enzyme activity persisted relatively undiminished for at least 3 days. Human and bovine arginase proved equally effective. The response of normal cells was to enter G1 (G0) arrest, from which most of the cells could be recovered weeks later. In contrast, malignant cell lines treated with unpegylated or pegylated enzyme resulted in cell death on a massive scale within 3 - 5 days, with a very low to negligible percentage of cells (<0.01%) being recoverable on restoration with arginine. Although pegylation resulted in a 40% drop in specific activity, arginase was considerably more stable and remained active for >>8 days. Arginine decarboxylase caused malignant cell arrest at the same units per millilitre as arginase. Its breakdown product, agmatine, was relatively nontoxic in the presence of arginine, but exacerbated cell death above millimolar concentration in its absence. Although ornithine failed to rescue cells from deprivation, citrulline recovered cells in all cases, although less well in fast-growing tumour cell populations, whereas readdition of arginine failed to work unless a complete medium change was given (because of the persistence of the enzymes in the medium catabolising its destruction). The advantages and disadvantages of these two arginine-catabolising enzymes are discussed, and compared with arginine deiminase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis* / drug effects
  • Arginase / metabolism*
  • Arginase / pharmacology
  • Arginine / deficiency*
  • Arginine / metabolism*
  • Carboxy-Lyases / metabolism
  • Carboxy-Lyases / pharmacology
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Cell Line
  • Diploidy
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Fibroblasts
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Time Factors
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Arginine
  • Arginase
  • Carboxy-Lyases
  • arginine decarboxylase