Pyruvate into lactate and back: from the Warburg effect to symbiotic energy fuel exchange in cancer cells

Radiother Oncol. 2009 Sep;92(3):329-33. doi: 10.1016/j.radonc.2009.06.025. Epub 2009 Jul 13.


Tumor cells fuel their metabolism with glucose and glutamine to meet the bioenergetic and biosynthetic demands of proliferation. Hypoxia and oncogenic mutations drive glycolysis, with the pyruvate to lactate conversion being promoted by increased expression of lactate dehydrogenase A and inactivation of pyruvate dehydrogenase. The NAD+ pool is consecutively regenerated and supports the high glycolytic flux required to produce anabolic intermediates. Glutaminolysis provides metabolic intermediates such as alpha-ketoglutarate to feed and thereby maintain the tricarboxylic acid cycle as a biosynthetic hub. Glycolysis and glutaminolysis share the capacity to generate NADPH, from the pentose phosphate pathway and through the malate conversion into pyruvate, respectively. Both pathways ultimately lead to the secretion of lactate. More than a waste product, lactate was recently identified as a major energy fuel in tumors. Lactate produced by hypoxic tumor cells may indeed diffuse and be taken up by oxygenated tumor cells. Preferential utilization of lactate for oxidative metabolism spares glucose which may in turn reach hypoxic tumor cells. Monocarboxylate transporter 1 regulates the entry of lactate into oxidative tumor cells. Its inhibition favors the switch from lactate-fuelled respiration to glycolysis and consecutively kills hypoxic tumor cells from glucose starvation. Combination with radiotherapy renders remaining cells more sensitive to irradiation, emphasizing how interference with tumor cell metabolism may complement current anticancer modalities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Death / physiology
  • Cell Death / radiation effects
  • Cell Hypoxia
  • Cell Line, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor / radiation effects
  • Cell Survival
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / radiation effects
  • Glycolysis / physiology*
  • Glycolysis / radiation effects
  • Humans
  • Lactic Acid / metabolism*
  • NAD / metabolism
  • NADP / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / radiotherapy
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Pyruvic Acid / metabolism*
  • Radiation Tolerance
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • NAD
  • Lactic Acid
  • NADP
  • Pyruvic Acid