Here, we interrogated head and neck cancer (HNSCC) specimens (n = 12) to examine if different metabolic compartments (oxidative vs. glycolytic) co-exist in human tumors. A large panel of well-established biomarkers was employed to determine the metabolic state of proliferative cancer cells. Interestingly, cell proliferation in cancer cells, as marked by Ki-67 immunostaining, was strictly correlated with oxidative mitochondrial metabolism (OXPHOS) and the uptake of mitochondrial fuels, as detected via MCT1 expression (p < 0.001). More specifically, three metabolic tumor compartments were delineated: (1) proliferative and mitochondrial-rich cancer cells (Ki-67+/TOMM20+/COX+/MCT1+); (2) non-proliferative and mitochondrial-poor cancer cells (Ki-67-/TOMM20-/COX-/MCT1-); and (3) non-proliferative and mitochondrial-poor stromal cells (Ki-67-/TOMM20-/COX-/MCT1-). In addition, high oxidative stress (MCT4+) was very specific for cancer tissues. Thus, we next evaluated the prognostic value of MCT4 in a second independent patient cohort (n = 40). Most importantly, oxidative stress (MCT4+) in non-proliferating epithelial cancer cells predicted poor clinical outcome (tumor recurrence; p < 0.0001; log-rank test), and was functionally associated with FDG-PET avidity (p < 0.04). Similarly, oxidative stress (MCT4+) in tumor stromal cells was specifically associated with higher tumor stage (p < 0.03), and was a highly specific marker for cancer-associated fibroblasts (p < 0.001). We propose that oxidative stress is a key hallmark of tumor tissues that drives high-energy metabolism in adjacent proliferating mitochondrial-rich cancer cells, via the paracrine transfer of mitochondrial fuels (such as L-lactate and ketone bodies). New antioxidants and MCT4 inhibitors should be developed to metabolically target "three-compartment tumor metabolism" in head and neck cancers. It is remarkable that two "non-proliferating" populations of cells (Ki-67-/MCT4+) within the tumor can actually determine clinical outcome, likely by providing high-energy mitochondrial "fuels" for proliferative cancer cells to burn. Finally, we also show that in normal mucosal tissue, the basal epithelial "stem cell" layer is hyper-proliferative (Ki-67+), mitochondrial-rich (TOMM20+/COX+) and is metabolically programmed to use mitochondrial fuels (MCT1+), such as ketone bodies and L-lactate. Thus, oxidative mitochondrial metabolism (OXPHOS) is a common feature of both (1) normal stem cells and (2) proliferating cancer cells. As such, we should consider metabolically treating cancer patients with mitochondrial inhibitors (such as Metformin), and/or with a combination of MCT1 and MCT4 inhibitors, to target "metabolic symbiosis."
Keywords: MCT1; MCT4; OXPHOS; TOMM20; glycolysis; head and neck cancer; metabolic symbiosis; mitochondria; monocarboxylate transporters (MCT); oxidative stress; stem cells; tumor recurrence; tumor stroma.