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Background: Deregulated energetics is a property of most cancer cells. This phenomenon, known as the Warburg Effect or aerobic glycolysis, is characterized by increased glucose uptake, lactate export and extracellular acidification, even in the presence of oxygen. beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that has previously been shown to be metabolized into carnosine, which functions as an intracellular buffer. Because of this buffering capacity, we investigated the effects of beta-alanine on the metabolic cancerous phenotype.

Methods: Non-malignant MCF-10a and malignant MCF-7 breast epithelial cells were treated with beta-alanine at 100 mM for 24 hours. Aerobic glycolysis was quantified by measuring extracellular acidification rate (ECAR) and oxidative metabolism was quantified by measuring oxygen consumption rate (OCR). mRNA of metabolism-related genes was quantified by qRT-PCR with corresponding protein expression quantified by immunoblotting, or by flow cytometry which was verified by confocal microscopy. Mitochondrial content was quantified using a mitochondria-specific dye and measured by flow cytometry.

Results: Cells treated with beta-alanine displayed significantly suppressed basal and peak ECAR (aerobic glycolysis), with simultaneous increase in glucose transporter 1 (GLUT1). Additionally, cells treated with beta-alanine exhibited significantly reduced basal and peak OCR (oxidative metabolism), which was accompanied by reduction in mitochondrial content with subsequent suppression of genes which promote mitochondrial biosynthesis. Suppression of glycolytic and oxidative metabolism by beta-alanine resulted in the reduction of total metabolic rate, although cell viability was not affected. Because beta-alanine treatment reduces extracellular acidity, a constituent of the invasive microenvironment that promotes progression, we investigated the effect of beta-alanine on breast cell viability and migration. beta-alanine was shown to reduce both cell migration and proliferation without acting in a cytotoxic fashion. Moreover, beta-alanine significantly increased malignant cell sensitivity to doxorubicin, suggesting a potential role as a co-therapeutic agent.

Conclusion: Taken together, our results suggest that beta-alanine may elicit several anti-tumor effects. Our observations support the need for further investigation into the mechanism(s) of action and specificity of beta-alanine as a co-therapeutic agent in the treatment of breast tumors.


This article was originally published in Molecular Cancer, volume 13, issue 1, in 2014. DOI: 10.1186/1476-4598-13-14


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