Dysregulated Glutamate Transporter SLC1A1 Propels Cystine Uptake via Xc - for Glutathione Synthesis in Lung Cancer

Cancer Res. 2021 Feb 1;81(3):552-566. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-20-0617. Epub 2020 Nov 23.


Cancer cells need to generate large amounts of glutathione (GSH) to buffer oxidative stress during tumor development. A rate-limiting step for GSH biosynthesis is cystine uptake via a cystine/glutamate antiporter Xc-. Xc- is a sodium-independent antiporter passively driven by concentration gradients from extracellular cystine and intracellular glutamate across the cell membrane. Increased uptake of cystine via Xc- in cancer cells increases the level of extracellular glutamate, which would subsequently restrain cystine uptake via Xc-. Cancer cells must therefore evolve a mechanism to overcome this negative feedback regulation. In this study, we report that glutamate transporters, in particular SLC1A1, are tightly intertwined with cystine uptake and GSH biosynthesis in lung cancer cells. Dysregulated SLC1A1, a sodium-dependent glutamate carrier, actively recycled extracellular glutamate into cells, which enhanced the efficiency of cystine uptake via Xc- and GSH biosynthesis as measured by stable isotope-assisted metabolomics. Conversely, depletion of glutamate transporter SLC1A1 increased extracellular glutamate, which inhibited cystine uptake, blocked GSH synthesis, and induced oxidative stress-mediated cell death or growth inhibition. Moreover, glutamate transporters were frequently upregulated in tissue samples of patients with non-small cell lung cancer. Taken together, active uptake of glutamate via SLC1A1 propels cystine uptake via Xc- for GSH biosynthesis in lung tumorigenesis. SIGNIFICANCE: Cellular GSH in cancer cells is not only determined by upregulated Xc- but also by dysregulated glutamate transporters, which provide additional targets for therapeutic intervention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antiporters / metabolism
  • Cell Death
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cystine / metabolism*
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Transporter 3 / metabolism*
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Glutamine / deficiency
  • Glutathione / biosynthesis*
  • Lung Neoplasms / etiology
  • Lung Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Up-Regulation


  • Antiporters
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Transporter 3
  • GPRC5A protein, mouse
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Slc1a1 protein, mouse
  • Glutamine
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Cystine
  • Glutathione