Cancer cells preferentially utilize glucose and glutamine, which provide macromolecules and antioxidants that sustain rapid cell division. Metabolic reprogramming in cancer drives an increased glycolytic rate that supports maximal production of these nutrients. The folate cycle, through transfer of a carbon unit between tetrahydrofolate and its derivatives in the cytoplasmic and mitochondrial compartments, produces other metabolites that are essential for cell growth, including nucleotides, methionine, and the antioxidant NADPH. Here, using hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) as a cancer model, we have observed a reduction in growth rate upon withdrawal of folate. We found that an enzyme in the folate cycle, methylenetetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase 1–like (MTHFD1L), plays an essential role in support of cancer growth. We determined that MTHFD1L is transcriptionally activated by NRF2, a master regulator of redox homeostasis. Our observations further suggest that MTHFD1L contributes to the production and accumulation of NADPH to levels that are sufficient to combat oxidative stress in cancer cells. The elevation of oxidative stress through MTHFD1L knockdown or the use of methotrexate, an antifolate drug, sensitizes cancer cells to sorafenib, a targeted therapy for HCC. Taken together, our study identifies MTHFD1L in the folate cycle as an important metabolic pathway in cancer cells with the potential for therapeutic targeting.


Derek Lee, Iris Ming-Jing Xu, David Kung-Chun Chiu, Robin Kit-Ho Lai, Aki Pui-Wah Tse, Lynna Lan Li, Cheuk-Ting Law, Felice Ho-Ching Tsang, Larry Lai Wei, Cerise Yuen-Ki Chan, Chun-Ming Wong, Irene Oi-Lin Ng, Carmen Chak-Lui Wong


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