We have used 31P- and 13C-nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure key metabolite levels and fluxes through enzymes regulating phospholipid and mitochondrial metabolism in normal human mammary epithelial cells. We have compared these values to those found in a progression series of breast cancer cell lines of varying metastatic potential established from a single patient. We find a 16–19-fold increase in phosphocholine content in two primary breast cancer cell lines (21PT and 21NT) and a 27-fold increase in phosphocholine content in the metastatic breast cancer cell line (21MT-2) compared with the normal breast epithelial cell strain 76N. Thus, phosphocholine may serve as a metabolic marker for the human breast cell progression state. A 30% decrease in ATP levels, a 83% decrease in phosphocreatine levels, along with a 2-fold increase in NAD+ + NADH levels in 21PT, 21NT, and 21MT-2 cells compared to the normal breast cells further suggests impaired mitochondrial metabolism in the breast carcinoma cell lines. Consistent with this suggestion is our finding that the primary breast cancer cell lines (21PT and 21NT) and the metastatic breast cell line (21MT-2) showed a 50 and 89% relative reduction, respectively, in the flux of pyruvate utilized for mitochondrial energy generation compared to pyruvate utilized to replenish tricarboxylic acid cycle intermediates. These results demonstrate that diminished mitochondrial energy generation may be quantitatively related to the progression state of human breast cells.


This study was supported by American Cancer Society Grants PRTF-00097-03 and EDT-87 and The Brigham Surgical Group. The experiments were performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the Comprehensive NMR Center for Biomedical Research, F. Bitter Magnet Laboratory (NIH Grant RR-00995).

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