Cancer stem/tumor-initiating cells display stress tolerance and metabolic flexibility to survive in a harsh environment with limited nutrient and oxygen availability. The molecular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon could provide targets to prevent metabolic adaptation and halt cancer progression. Here, we showed in cultured cells and live human surgical biopsies of non–small cell lung cancer that nutrient stress drives the expression of the epithelial cancer stem cell marker integrin αvβ3 via upregulation of the β3 subunit, resulting in a metabolic reprogramming cascade that allows tumor cells to thrive despite a nutrient-limiting environment. Although nutrient deprivation is known to promote acute, yet transient, activation of the stress sensor AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), stress-induced αvβ3 expression via Src activation unexpectedly led to secondary and sustained AMPK activation. This resulted in the nuclear localization of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma coactivator 1α (PGC1α) and upregulation of glutamine metabolism, the tricarboxylic acid cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. Pharmacological or genetic targeting of this axis prevented lung cancer cells from evading the effects of nutrient stress, thereby blocking tumor initiation in mice following orthotopic implantation of lung cancer cells. These findings reveal a molecular pathway driven by nutrient stress that results in cancer stem cell reprogramming to promote metabolic flexibility and tumor initiation.


Upregulation of integrin αvβ3, a cancer stem cell marker, in response to nutrient stress activates sustained AMPK/PGC1α signaling that induces metabolic reprogramming in lung cancer cells to support their survival.

See related commentary by Rainero, p. 1543

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