The dichotomous role of the glycolytic metabolism pathway in cancer metastasis: Interplay with the complex tumor microenvironment and novel therapeutic strategies

Semin Cancer Biol. 2020 Feb:60:238-248. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2019.08.025. Epub 2019 Aug 21.


Cancer metastasis to distant organs is initiated by tumor cells that disseminate from primary heterogeneous tumors. The subsequent growth and survival of tumor metastases depend on different metabolic changes, which constitute one of the enigmatic properties of tumor cells. Aerobic glycolysis, 'the Warburg effect', contributes to tumor energy supply, by oxidizing glucose in a faster manner compared to oxidative phosphorylation, leading to an increased lactate production by lactate dehydrogenase A (LDH-A), which in turn affects the immune response. Surrounding stromal cells contribute to feedback mechanisms further prompting the acquisition of pro-invasive metabolic features. Hence, therapeutic strategies targeting the glycolytic pathway are intensively investigated, with a special interest on their anti-metastatic properties. Various small molecules, such as LDH-A inhibitors, have shown pre-clinical activity against different cancer types, and blocking LDH-A could also help in designing future complimentary therapies. Modulation of specific targets in cells with an altered glycolytic metabolism should indeed result in a milder and distinct toxicity profile, compared to conventional cytotoxic therapy, while a combination treatment with vitamin C leading to increasing reactive oxygen species levels, should further inhibit cancer cell survival and invasion. In this review we describe the impact of metabolic reprogramming in cancer metastasis, the contribution of lactate in this aberrant process and its effect on oncogenic processes. Furthermore, we discuss experimental compounds that target glycolytic metabolism, such as LDH-A inhibitors, and their potential to improve current and experimental therapeutics against metastatic tumors.

Keywords: Glycolysis; LDH; Metastasis; Tumor microenvironment; Vitamin C.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Ascorbic Acid / metabolism
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Glucose / metabolism*
  • Glycolysis
  • Humans
  • L-Lactate Dehydrogenase / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways* / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction
  • Stromal Cells / metabolism
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • L-Lactate Dehydrogenase
  • Glucose
  • Ascorbic Acid