Synthesis of acetylcholine by lung cancer

Life Sci. 2003 Mar 28;72(18-19):2159-68. doi: 10.1016/s0024-3205(03)00078-x.


The role of autocrine growth factors in the stimulation of lung cancer growth is well established. Nicotine is an agonist for acetylcholine receptors and stimulates lung cancer growth. This suggests that if lung cancers synthesize acetylcholine (ACh), then ACh may be an autocrine growth factor for lung cancer. Analysis of normal lung demonstrated that the cells of origin of lung cancers express the proteins necessary for non-neuronal ACh storage and synthesis. Analysis of mRNA from squamous cell lung carcinoma, small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) and adenocarcinoma showed synthesis of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) and nicotinic receptors. Immunohistochemical analysis of a retrospective series of SCLC and adenocarcinomas showed that more than 50% of the lung cancers screened expressed ChAT and nicotinic receptors. To study the effect of endogenous ACh synthesis on growth, SCLC cell lines were studied. SCLC cell lines were found to express ChAT mRNA and to secrete ACh into the medium as measured by HPLC separation and enzymatically-coupled electrochemical detection. The SCLC cell line NCI-H82 synthesized highest levels of ACh. Showing that the endogenously synthesized ACh interacted with its receptors to stimulate cell growth, addition of muscarinic and nicotinic antagonists slowed H82 cell proliferation. These findings demonstrate that lung cancer cell lines synthesize and secrete ACh to act as an autocrine growth factor. The existence of a cholinergic autocrine loop in lung cancer provides a basis for understanding the effects of nicotine in cigarette smoke on lung cancer growth and provides a new pathway to investigate for potential therapeutic approaches to lung cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / biosynthesis*
  • Acetylcholine / physiology
  • Animals
  • Atropine / pharmacology
  • Autocrine Communication / physiology*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / pathology
  • Carrier Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Division / physiology
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase / metabolism
  • Haplorhini
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Mecamylamine / pharmacology
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Muscarinic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / biosynthesis
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins*


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Muscarinic Antagonists
  • Nicotinic Antagonists
  • Receptors, Cholinergic
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins
  • choline transporter
  • Mecamylamine
  • Atropine
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase
  • Acetylcholine