Autophagy, Metabolism, and Cancer

Clin Cancer Res. 2015 Nov 15;21(22):5037-46. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-15-0490.


Macroautophagy (autophagy hereafter) captures intracellular proteins and organelles and degrades them in lysosomes. The degradation breakdown products are released from lysosomes and recycled into metabolic and biosynthetic pathways. Basal autophagy provides protein and organelle quality control by eliminating damaged cellular components. Starvation-induced autophagy recycles intracellular components into metabolic pathways to sustain mitochondrial metabolic function and energy homeostasis. Recycling by autophagy is essential for yeast and mammals to survive starvation through intracellular nutrient scavenging. Autophagy suppresses degenerative diseases and has a context-dependent role in cancer. In some models, cancer initiation is suppressed by autophagy. By preventing the toxic accumulation of damaged protein and organelles, particularly mitochondria, autophagy limits oxidative stress, chronic tissue damage, and oncogenic signaling, which suppresses cancer initiation. This suggests a role for autophagy stimulation in cancer prevention, although the role of autophagy in the suppression of human cancer is unclear. In contrast, some cancers induce autophagy and are dependent on autophagy for survival. Much in the way that autophagy promotes survival in starvation, cancers can use autophagy-mediated recycling to maintain mitochondrial function and energy homeostasis to meet the elevated metabolic demand of growth and proliferation. Thus, autophagy inhibition may be beneficial for cancer therapy. Moreover, tumors are more autophagy-dependent than normal tissues, suggesting that there is a therapeutic window. Despite these insights, many important unanswered questions remain about the exact mechanisms of autophagy-mediated cancer suppression and promotion, how relevant these observations are to humans, and whether the autophagy pathway can be modulated therapeutically in cancer. See all articles in this CCR Focus section, "Cell Death and Cancer Therapy."

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy / drug effects
  • Autophagy / genetics*
  • Carcinogenesis / genetics
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell Proliferation / genetics
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways*
  • Mice
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Oxidative Stress / genetics