Mitochondria and cancer: a growing role in apoptosis, cancer cell metabolism and dedifferentiation

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2012;942:287-308. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-2869-1_13.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Otto Warburg demonstrated that cancer cells have a peculiar metabolism. These cells preferentially utilise glycolysis for energetic and anabolic purposes, producing large quantities of lactic acid. He defined this unusual metabolism "aerobic glycolysis". At the same time, Warburg hypothesised that a disruption of mitochondrial activities played a precise pathogenic role in cancer. Because of this so-called "Warburg effect", mitochondrial physiology and cellular respiration in particular have been overlooked in pathophysiological studies of cancer. Over time, however, many studies have shown that mitochondria play a fundamental role in cell death by apoptosis or necrosis. Moreover, metabolic enzymes of the Krebs cycle have also recently been recognised as oncosuppressors. Recently, a series of studies were undertaken to re-evaluate the role of oxidative mitochondrial metabolism in cancer cell growth and progression. Some of these data indicate that modulation of mitochondrial respiration may induce an arrest of cancer cell proliferation and differentiation (pseudodifferentiation) and/or or death, suggesting that iatrogenic manipulation of some mitochondrial activities may induce anticancer effects. Moreover, studying the role of mitochondria in cancer cell dedifferentiation/differentiation processes may allow further insight into the pathophysiology and therapy of so-called cancer stem cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis*
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Reactive Oxygen Species