Tumor cells utilize glucose to fuel their anabolic needs, including rapid proliferation. However, due to defective vasculature and increased glucose uptake, tumor cells must overcome glucose deprivation. Accordingly, tumor cells depend on cellular pathways promoting survival under such conditions. Targeting these survival mechanisms can thus serve as a new therapeutic strategy in oncology. As such, we sought to identify small-molecule inhibitors which sensitize tumor cells to glucose starvation by high-throughput drug screening in vitro. Specifically, we searched for inhibitors that selectively killed tumor cells growing in glucose-free but not in normal medium. This phenotypic drug screen of 7000 agents with MCF7 cells led to the identification of 67 potential candidates, 31 of which were validated individually. Among the identified compounds, we found a high number of compounds known to target mitochondria. The efficacies of two of the identified compounds, QNZ (EVP4593) and papaverine, were validated in four different tumor cell lines. We found that these agents inhibited the mTOR(Mechamistic\Mammilian Target of Rapamycin) pathway in tumor cells growing under glucose starvation, but not under normal conditions. The results were validated and confirmed in vivo, with QNZ and papaverine exhibiting superior antitumor activity in a tumor xenograft model when combined with the VEGF inhibitor bevacizumab (avastin). Administering these drug combinations (i.e., avastin and papaverine, and avastin and QNZ) led to significant reductions in proliferation and mTOR activity of the aggressive DLD1 colon cell line in mice. Given our findings, we propose that compounds targeting metabolically challenged tumors, such as inhibitors of mitochondrial activity, be considered as a therapeutic strategy in cancer.
Keywords: HTS; cancer metabolism; drug combination; small molecule; synthetic lethality.