The pivotal roles of mitochondria in cancer: Warburg and beyond and encouraging prospects for effective therapies

Biochim Biophys Acta. Jun-Jul 2010;1797(6-7):1225-30. doi: 10.1016/j.bbabio.2010.03.025. Epub 2010 Apr 8.


Tumors usurp established metabolic steps used by normal tissues for glucose utilization and ATP production that rely heavily on mitochondria and employ a route that, although involving mitochondria, includes a much greater dependency on glycolysis. First described by Otto Warburg almost nine decades ago [1], this aberrant phenotype becomes more pronounced with increased tumor malignancy [2]. Thus, while maintaining their capacity for respiration, tumors "turn more parasitic" by enhancing their ability to scavenge glucose from their surroundings. With excess glucose at hand, tumors shunt their metabolic flux more toward glycolysis than do their normal cells of origin, a strategy that allows for their survival when oxygen is limiting while providing them a mechanism to poison their extra-cellular environment with acid, thus paving the way for invasion and metastasis. Significantly, tumors harness a crucial enzyme to regulate and support this destructive path--to entrap and channel glucose toward glycolysis. This enzyme is an isoform of hexokinase, referred to as hexokinase type II, and also in abbreviated form as HK-2 or HK II. Due to many-faceted molecular features at genetic, epigenetic, transcriptional, and enzymatic levels, including sub-cellular localization to mitochondria, HK-2 facilitates and promotes the high glycolytic tumor phenotype [3]. Thus, HK-2 represents a pivotal model gene or enzyme that tumors "select for" during tumorigenesis in order to facilitate their destructive path. In this review, we examine the roles played by mitochondrial bound HK-2 within the context of the highly choreographed metabolic roulette of malignant tumors. Recent studies that outline how the aberrant glycolytic flux can be subverted toward a more "normal" metabolic phenotype, and how the glycolytic flux affects the tumor microenvironment to facilitate tumor dissemination are also described, including how these very features can be harnessed in new metabolic targeting strategies to selectively debilitate tumors.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Glycolysis
  • Hexokinase / genetics
  • Hexokinase / metabolism
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Lactic Acid
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Monocarboxylic Acid Transporters / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Proton Pumps / metabolism
  • Research / history


  • Monocarboxylic Acid Transporters
  • Proton Pumps
  • Lactic Acid
  • Hexokinase
  • Glucose