Dichotomous role of the human mitochondrial Na+/Ca2+/Li+ exchanger NCLX in colorectal cancer growth and metastasis

Elife. 2020 Sep 11;9:e59686. doi: 10.7554/eLife.59686.


Despite the established role of mitochondria in cancer, the mechanisms by which mitochondrial Ca2+ (mtCa2+) regulates tumorigenesis remain incompletely understood. The crucial role of mtCa2+ in tumorigenesis is highlighted by altered expression of proteins mediating mtCa2+ uptake and extrusion in cancer. Here, we demonstrate decreased expression of the mitochondrial Na+/Ca2+/Li+ exchanger NCLX (SLC8B1) in human colorectal tumors and its association with advanced-stage disease in patients. Downregulation of NCLX causes mtCa2+ overload, mitochondrial depolarization, decreased expression of cell-cycle genes and reduced tumor size in xenograft and spontaneous colorectal cancer mouse models. Concomitantly, NCLX downregulation drives metastatic spread, chemoresistance, and expression of epithelial-to-mesenchymal, hypoxia, and stem cell pathways. Mechanistically, mtCa2+ overload leads to increased mitochondrial reactive oxygen species, which activate HIF1α signaling supporting metastasis of NCLX-null tumor cells. Thus, loss of NCLX is a novel driver of metastasis, indicating that regulation of mtCa2+ is a novel therapeutic approach in metastatic colorectal cancer.

Keywords: Colorectal cancer; HIF1a; calcium signaling; human; metastasis; mitochondrial calcium; molecular biophysics; mouse; structural biology.

Plain language summary

Colorectal cancer is the second largest cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Even in cases where the cancer is diagnosed and treated early, cells can sometimes survive treatment and spread to other organs. Once the cancer has spread, the survival rate is less than 15%. Mitochondria are compartments in the cell that produce energy, and they play an important role in supporting the rapid growth of cancer cells. The levels of calcium ions in mitochondria control how they produce energy [OK?], a process that is altered in cancer cells. To better understand how calcium ions influence colorectal cancer growth, Pathak, Gueguinou et al. studied a protein called NCLX, which controls calcium levels by pumping them out of the mitochondria. Two mouse strains that were used to study what happens if NCLX is missing. The first strain was genetically modified to disable the gene for NCLX and then exposed to carcinogens. The second strain was injected with colorectal cancer cells from a human tumor that were lacking NCLX. In both strains, the tumors that formed were smaller than in mice with NCLX. However, the human cancer cells in the second model were more likely to spread to other organs. This is likely because the build-up of calcium ions in the mitochondria of mice lacking NCLX led to an increase in the production of hypoxia-inducible factor-1a, a protein that is a common driver of cancer spread. Pathak, Gueguinou et al. demonstrated how NCLX can affect colorectal cancer progression. It suggests that it may have opposing effects during early and late-stage colorectal cancer, encouraging tumor growth but also decreasing the spread to other organs. Further research could help refine treatments at different stages of the disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Colon / pathology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Sodium-Calcium Exchanger / metabolism*


  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • SLC8B1 protein, human
  • Sodium-Calcium Exchanger
  • Calcium