A Barter Economy in Tumors: Exchanging Metabolites through Gap Junctions.
Swietach P., Monterisi S.
To produce physiological functions, many tissues require their cells to be connected by gap junctions. Such diffusive coupling is important in establishing a cytoplasmic syncytium through which cells can exchange signals, substrates and metabolites. Often the benefits of connectivity become apparent solely at the multicellular level, leading to the notion that cells work for a common good rather than exclusively in their self-interest. In some tumors, gap junctional connectivity between cancer cells is reduced or absent, but there are notable cases where it persists or re-emerges in late-stage disease. Diffusive coupling will blur certain phenotypic differences between cells, which may seem to go against the establishment of population heterogeneity, a central pillar of cancer that stems from genetic instability. Here, building on our previous measurements of gap junctional coupling between cancer cells, we use a computational model to simulate the role of connexin-assembled channels in exchanging lactate and bicarbonate ions down their diffusion gradients. Based on the results of these simulations, we propose that an overriding benefit of gap junctional connectivity may relate to lactate/bicarbonate exchange, which would support an elevated metabolic rate in hypoxic tumors. In this example of barter, hypoxic cancer cells provide normoxic neighbors with lactate for mitochondrial oxidation; in exchange, bicarbonate ions, which are more plentiful in normoxic cells, are supplied to hypoxic neighbors to neutralize the H⁺ ions co-produced glycolytically. Both cells benefit, and so does the tumor.