What is pH regulation, and why do cancer cells need it?
Metabolism is a continuous source of acids. To keep up with a desired metabolic rate, tumors must establish an adequate means of clearing their acidic end-products. This homeostatic priority is achieved by various buffers, enzymes, and transporters connected through the common denominator of H+ ions. Whilst this complexity is proportionate to the importance of adequate pH control, it is problematic for developing an intuition for tracking the route taken by acids, assessing the relative importance of various acid-handling proteins, and predicting the outcomes of pharmacological inhibition or genetic alteration. Here, with the help of a simplified mathematical framework, the genesis of cancer pH regulation is explained in terms of the obstacles to efficient acid venting and how these are overcome by specific molecules, often associated with cancer. Ultimately, the pH regulatory apparatus in tumors must (i) provide adequate lactic acid permeability through membranes, (ii) facilitate CO2/HCO3-/H+ diffusivity across the interstitium, (iii) invest in a form of active transport that strikes a favorable balance between intracellular pH and intracellular lactate retention under the energetic constraints of a cell, and (iv) enable the necessary feedback to complete the homeostatic loop. A more informed and quantitative approach to understanding acid-handling in cancer is mandatory for identifying vulnerabilities, which could be exploited as therapeutic targets.