A causal link from ALK to hexokinase II overexpression and hyperactive glycolysis in EML4-ALK-positive lung cancer

A high rate of aerobic glycolysis is a hallmark of malignant transformation. Accumulating evidence suggests that diverse regulatory mechanisms mediate this cancer-associated metabolic change seen in a wide spectrum of cancer. The echinoderm microtubule-associated protein-like 4-anaplastic lymphoma kinase (EML4-ALK) fusion protein is found in approximately 3-7% of non-small cell lung carcinomas (NSCLC). Molecular evidence and therapeutic effectiveness of FDA-approved ALK inhibitors indicated that EML4-ALK is a driving factor of lung tumorigenesis. A recent clinical study showed that NSCLC harboring EML4-ALK rearrangements displayed higher glucose metabolism compared with EML4-ALK-negative NSCLC. In the current work, we presented evidence that EML4-ALK is coupled to overexpression of hexokinase II (HK2), one of the rate-limiting enzymes of the glycolytic pathway. The link from EML4-ALK to HK2 upregulation is essential for a high rate of glycolysis and proliferation of EML4-ALK-rearranged NSCLC cells. We identified hypoxia-inducible factor 1α (HIF1α) as a key transcription factor to drive HK2 gene expression in normoxia in these cells. EML4-ALK induced hypoxia-independent but glucose-dependent accumulation of HIF1α protein via both transcriptional activation of HIF1α mRNA and the phosphatidylinositol 3 kinase-AKT pathway to enhance HIF1α protein synthesis. The EML4-ALK-mediated upregulation of HIF1α, HK2 and glycolytic metabolism was also highly active in vivo as demonstrated by fluorodeoxyglucose-positron emission tomography imaging of xenografts grown from EML4-ALK-positive NSCLC cells. Our data reveal a novel EML4-ALK-HIF1α-HK2 cascade to enhance glucose metabolism in EML4-ALK-positive NSCLC.

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