Background: Recent evidence suggests that several human cancers are capable of uncoupling of mitochondrial ATP generation in the presence of intact tricarboxylic acid (TCA) enzymes. The goal of the current study was to test the hypothesis that ketone bodies can inhibit cell growth in aggressive cancers and that expression of uncoupling protein 2 is a contributing factor. The proposed mechanism involves inhibition of glycolytic ATP production via a Randle-like cycle while increased uncoupling renders cancers unable to produce compensatory ATP from respiration.
Methods: Seven aggressive human cancer cell lines, and three control fibroblast lines were grown in vitro in either 10 mM glucose medium (GM), or in glucose plus 10 mM acetoacetate [G+AcA]. The cells were assayed for cell growth, ATP production and expression of UCP2.
Results: There was a high correlation of cell growth with ATP concentration (r = 0.948) in a continuum across all cell lines. Controls demonstrated normal cell growth and ATP with the lowest density of mitochondrial UCP2 staining while all cancer lines demonstrated proportionally inhibited growth and ATP, and over-expression of UCP2 (p < 0.05).
Conclusion: Seven human cancer cell lines grown in glucose plus acetoacetate medium showed tightly coupled reduction of growth and ATP concentration. The findings were not observed in control fibroblasts. The observed over-expression of UCP2 in cancer lines, but not in controls, provides a plausible molecular mechanism by which acetoacetate spares normal cells but suppresses growth in cancer lines. The results bear on the hypothesized potential for ketogenic diets as therapeutic strategies.