Glutamate has been implicated in tumorigenesis through activation of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptors (AMPAR). However, the function of a glutamate-to-AMPAR signal in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) has remained elusive. We now show that glutamate-mediated AMPA receptor activation increases invasion and migration of pancreatic cancer cells via activation of the classical MAPK pathway. Glutamate levels were increased in pancreatic cancer accompanied by downregulation of GluR subunits 1, 2, and 4. In pancreatic cancer precursor lesions, pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PanIN), GluR1 subunit levels were strikingly and step-wise increased but its expression was rare in PDAC. Pharmacological inhibition or RNAi-mediated suppression of GluR1 or GluR2 did not affect cancer cell growth but significantly decreased invasion. In a K-ras wildtype cell line, AMPA receptor activation enhanced K-ras activity and--further downstream--phosphorylation of p38 and of p44/42. Preemptive blockade of AMPA receptors in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer inhibited tumor cell settling. AMPA receptor activation thus not only activates MAPK signalling but also directly increases activity of K-ras. Glutamate might serve as a molecular switch that decreases the threshold of K-ras-induced oncogenic signalling and increases the chance of malignant transformation of pancreatic cancer precursor lesions.
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