The ST6Gal-I sialyltransferase protects tumor cells against hypoxia by enhancing HIF-1α signaling

J Biol Chem. 2018 Apr 13;293(15):5659-5667. doi: 10.1074/jbc.RA117.001194. Epub 2018 Feb 23.


Aberrant cell surface glycosylation is prevalent in tumor cells, and there is ample evidence that glycans have functional roles in carcinogenesis. Nonetheless, many molecular details remain unclear. Tumor cells frequently exhibit increased α2-6 sialylation on N-glycans, a modification that is added by the ST6Gal-I sialyltransferase, and emerging evidence suggests that ST6Gal-I-mediated sialylation promotes the survival of tumor cells exposed to various cell stressors. Here we report that ST6Gal-I protects cancer cells from hypoxic stress. It is well known that hypoxia-inducible factor 1α (HIF-1α) is stabilized in hypoxic cells, and, in turn, HIF-1α directs the transcription of genes important for cell survival. To investigate a putative role for ST6Gal-I in the hypoxic response, we examined HIF-1α accumulation in ovarian and pancreatic cancer cells in ST6Gal-I overexpression or knockdown experiments. We found that ST6Gal-I activity augmented HIF-1α accumulation in cells grown in a hypoxic environment or treated with two chemical hypoxia mimetics, deferoxamine and dimethyloxalylglycine. Correspondingly, hypoxic cells with high ST6Gal-I expression had increased mRNA levels of HIF-1α transcriptional targets, including the glucose transporter genes GLUT1 and GLUT3 and the glycolytic enzyme gene PDHK1 Interestingly, high ST6Gal-I-expressing cells also had an increased pool of HIF-1α mRNA, suggesting that ST6Gal-I may influence HIF-1α expression. Finally, cells grown in hypoxia for several weeks displayed enriched ST6Gal-I expression, consistent with a pro-survival function. Taken together, these findings unravel a glycosylation-dependent mechanism that facilitates tumor cell adaptation to a hypoxic milieu.

Keywords: ST6Gal-I; anoxia; cancer stem cells; cell stress; cell surface glycosylation; glycan; glycosylation; hypoxia; hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF); sialyltransferase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, CD / biosynthesis*
  • Antigens, CD / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / genetics
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / metabolism*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism*
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / genetics
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / pathology
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • RNA, Messenger / biosynthesis
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Neoplasm / biosynthesis
  • RNA, Neoplasm / genetics
  • Sialyltransferases / biosynthesis*
  • Sialyltransferases / genetics
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Tumor Hypoxia*


  • Antigens, CD
  • HIF1A protein, human
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • RNA, Neoplasm
  • Sialyltransferases
  • ST6GAL1 protein, human