One-carbon metabolism in cancer

Br J Cancer. 2017 Jun 6;116(12):1499-1504. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2017.118. Epub 2017 May 4.


Cells require one-carbon units for nucleotide synthesis, methylation and reductive metabolism, and these pathways support the high proliferative rate of cancer cells. As such, anti-folates, drugs that target one-carbon metabolism, have long been used in the treatment of cancer. Amino acids, such as serine are a major one-carbon source, and cancer cells are particularly susceptible to deprivation of one-carbon units by serine restriction or inhibition of de novo serine synthesis. Recent work has also begun to decipher the specific pathways and sub-cellular compartments that are important for one-carbon metabolism in cancer cells. In this review we summarise the historical understanding of one-carbon metabolism in cancer, describe the recent findings regarding the generation and usage of one-carbon units and explore possible future therapeutics that could exploit the dependency of cancer cells on one-carbon metabolism.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / metabolism*
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways*
  • Methylation
  • NAD / biosynthesis
  • NADP / biosynthesis
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Nucleotides / biosynthesis


  • Amino Acids
  • Nucleotides
  • NAD
  • NADP
  • Carbon