Catabolism of exogenous lactate reveals it as a legitimate metabolic substrate in breast cancer

PLoS One. 2013 Sep 12;8(9):e75154. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075154. eCollection 2013.


Lactate accumulation in tumors has been associated with metastases and poor overall survival in cancer patients. Lactate promotes angiogenesis and metastasis, providing rationale for understanding how it is processed by cells. The concentration of lactate in tumors is a balance between the amount produced, amount carried away by vasculature and if/how it is catabolized by aerobic tumor or stromal cells. We examined lactate metabolism in human normal and breast tumor cell lines and rat breast cancer: 1. at relevant concentrations, 2. under aerobic vs. hypoxic conditions, 3. under conditions of normo vs. hypoglucosis. We also compared the avidity of tumors for lactate vs. glucose and identified key lactate catabolites to reveal how breast cancer cells process it. Lactate was non-toxic at clinically relevant concentrations. It was taken up and catabolized to alanine and glutamate by all cell lines. Kinetic uptake rates of lactate in vivo surpassed that of glucose in R3230Ac mammary carcinomas. The uptake appeared specific to aerobic tumor regions, consistent with the proposed "metabolic symbiont" model; here lactate produced by hypoxic cells is used by aerobic cells. We investigated whether treatment with alpha-cyano-4-hydroxycinnamate (CHC), a MCT1 inhibitor, would kill cells in the presence of high lactate. Both 0.1 mM and 5 mM CHC prevented lactate uptake in R3230Ac cells at lactate concentrations at ≤ 20 mM but not at 40 mM. 0.1 mM CHC was well-tolerated by R3230Ac and MCF7 cells, but 5 mM CHC killed both cell lines ± lactate, indicating off-target effects. This study showed that breast cancer cells tolerate and use lactate at clinically relevant concentrations in vitro (± glucose) and in vivo. We provided additional support for the metabolic symbiont model and discovered that breast cells prevailingly take up and catabolize lactate, providing rationale for future studies on manipulation of lactate catabolism pathways for therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alanine / biosynthesis
  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Death / drug effects
  • Cell Hypoxia
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Coumaric Acids / pharmacology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Glutamic Acid / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Lactic Acid / metabolism*
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / drug effects
  • Metabolomics
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Rats


  • Coumaric Acids
  • alpha-cyano-4-hydroxycinnamate
  • Lactic Acid
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Glucose
  • Alanine