Anti-cancer strategy targeting the energy metabolism of tumor cells surviving a low-nutrient acidic microenvironment

Yuki Maeda, Ryota Kikuchi, Junichiro Kawagoe, Takao Tsuji, ... Kazutetsu Aoshiba



Tumor cells experience hypoxia, acidosis, and hypoglycemia. Metabolic adaptation to glucose shortage is essential to maintain tumor cells’ survival because of their high glucose requirement. This study evaluated the hypothesis that acidosis might promote tumor survival during glucose shortage and if so, explored a novel drug targeting metabolic vulnerability to glucose shortage.


Cell survival and bioenergetics metabolism were assessed in lung cancer cell lines. Our in-house small-molecule compounds were screened to identify those that kill cancer cells under low-glucose conditions. Cytotoxicity against non-cancerous cells was also assessed. Tumor growth was evaluated in vivo using a mouse engraft model.


Acidosis limited the cellular consumption of glucose and ATP, causing tumor cells to enter a metabolically dormant but energetically economic state, which promoted tumor cell survival during glucose deficiency. We identified ESI-09, a previously known exchange protein directly activated by cAMP (EAPC) inhibitor, as an anti-cancer compound that inhibited cancer cells under low-glucose conditions even when associated with acidosis. Bioenergetic studies showed that independent of EPAC inhibition, ESI-09 was a safer mitochondrial uncoupler than a classical uncoupler and created a futile cycle of mitochondrial respiration, leading to decreased ATP production, increased ATP dissipation, and fuel scavenging. Accordingly, ESI-09 exhibited more cytotoxic effects under low-glucose conditions than under normal glucose conditions. ESI-09 was also more effective than actively proliferating cells on quiescent glucose-restricted cells. Cisplatin showed opposite effects. ESI-09 inhibited tumor growth in lung cancer engraft mice.


This study highlights the acidosis-induced promotion of tumor survival during glucose shortage and demonstrates that ESI-09 is a novel potent anti-cancer mitochondrial uncoupler that targets a metabolic vulnerability to glucose shortage even when associated with acidosis. The higher cytotoxicity under lower-than-normal glucose conditions suggests that ESI-09 is safer than conventional chemotherapy, can target the metabolic vulnerability of tumor cells to low-glucose stress, and is applicable to many cancer cell types.