Glutamate increases pancreatic cancer cell invasion and migration via AMPA receptor activation and Kras-MAPK signaling

Int J Cancer. 2011 Nov 15;129(10):2349-59. doi: 10.1002/ijc.25898. Epub 2011 Apr 7.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / metabolism*
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase Kinases / metabolism*
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasm Transplantation
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras)
  • Receptors, AMPA / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction*
  • ras Proteins / metabolism*


  • KRAS protein, human
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Receptors, AMPA
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase Kinases
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras)
  • ras Proteins