Alternative fuels for cancer cells

Cancer J. 2015 Mar-Apr;21(2):49-55. doi: 10.1097/PPO.0000000000000104.


Tumor metabolism is significantly altered to support the various metabolic needs of tumor cells. The most prominent change is the increased tumor glycolysis that leads to increased glucose uptake and utilization. However, it has become obvious that many non-glucose nutrients, such as amino acids, lactate, acetate, and macromolecules, can serve as alternative fuels for cancer cells. This knowledge reveals an unexpected flexibility and evolutionarily conserved model in which cancer cells uptake nutrients from their external environment to fulfill their necessary energetic needs. Tumor cells may have evolved the ability to utilize different carbon sources because of the limited supply of nutrients in their microenvironment, which can be driven by oncogenic mutations or tumor microenvironmental stresses. In certain cases, these factors permanently alter the tumor cells' metabolism, causing certain nutrients to become indispensable and thus creating opportunities for therapeutic intervention to eradicate tumors by their metabolic vulnerabilities.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological
  • Amino Acids / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Glutamine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lactic Acid / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Phenotype
  • Stress, Physiological


  • Amino Acids
  • Glutamine
  • Lactic Acid