Amino acids are integral components of cancer metabolism. The non-essential amino acid asparagine supports the growth and survival of various cancer cell types. Here, different mass spectrometry approaches were employed to identify lower aspartate levels, higher aspartate/glutamine ratios and lower tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle metabolite levels in asparagine-deprived sarcoma cells. Reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+)/nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide hydride (NADH) ratios were consistent with redirection of TCA cycle flux and relative electron acceptor deficiency. Elevated lactate/pyruvate ratios may be due to compensatory NAD+ regeneration through increased pyruvate to lactate conversion by lactate dehydrogenase. Supplementation with exogenous pyruvate, which serves as an electron acceptor, restored aspartate levels, NAD+/NADH ratios, lactate/pyruvate ratios and cell growth in asparagine-deprived cells. Chemicals disrupting NAD+ regeneration in the electron transport chain further enhanced the anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic effects of asparagine depletion. We speculate that reductive stress may be a major contributor to the growth arrest observed in asparagine-starved cells.
Keywords: asparagine starvation; metabolomics; reductive stress; sarcoma.