Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a typical tumor that undergoes metabolic reprogramming, differing from normal liver tissue in glucose, lipid, nucleic acid, and amino acid metabolism. Although ammonia is a toxic metabolic by-product, it has also been recently recognized as a signaling molecule to activate lipid metabolism, and it can be a nitrogen source for biosynthesis to support tumorigenesis. In this study, we revealed that β-catenin activation increases ammonia production in HCC mainly by stimulating glutaminolysis. β-Catenin/LEF1 activated the transcription of the glutamate dehydrogenase GLUD1, which then promoted ammonia utilization to enhance the production of glutamate, aspartate, and proline as evidenced by 15NH4Cl metabolic flux. β-Catenin/TCF4 induced the transcription of SLC4A11, an ammonia transporter, to excrete excess ammonia. SLC4A11 was upregulated in HCC tumor tissues, and high SLC4A11 expression was associated with poor prognosis and advanced disease stages. Loss of SLC4A11 induced HCC cell senescence in vitro by blocking ammonia excretion and reduced β-catenin–driven tumor growth in vivo. Furthermore, elevated levels of plasma ammonia promoted the progression of β-catenin mutant HCC, which was impeded by SLC4A11 deficiency. Downregulation of SLC4A11 led to ammonia accumulation in tumor interstitial fluid and decreased plasma ammonia levels in HCC with activated β-catenin. Altogether, this study indicates that β-catenin activation reprograms ammonia metabolism and that blocking ammonia excretion by targeting SLC4A11 could be a promising approach to induce senescence in β-catenin mutant HCC.

Significance:

Ammonia metabolism reprogramming mediated by aberrant activation of β-catenin induces resistance to senescence in HCC and can be targeted by inhibiting SLC4A11 as a potential therapy for β-catenin mutant liver cancer.

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