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Targeting metabolism with arsenic trioxide and dichloroacetate in breast cancer cells

Ramon C Sun12, Philip G Board1 and Anneke C Blackburn1*

Author Affiliations

1 Molecular Genetics Group, Department of Translational Biosciences, John Curtin School of Medical Research, Building 131, Australian National University, P.O. Box 334, Canberra ACT 0200, AUSTRALIA

2 Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford CA 94305 USA

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Molecular Cancer 2011, 10:142  doi:10.1186/1476-4598-10-142

Published: 18 November 2011



Cancer cells have a different metabolic profile compared to normal cells. The Warburg effect (increased aerobic glycolysis) and glutaminolysis (increased mitochondrial activity from glutamine catabolism) are well known hallmarks of cancer and are accompanied by increased lactate production, hyperpolarized mitochondrial membrane and increased production of reactive oxygen species.


In this study we target the Warburg effect with dichloroacetate (DCA) and the increased mitochondrial activity of glutaminolysis with arsenic trioxide (ATO) in breast cancer cells, measuring cell proliferation, cell death and mitochondrial characteristics.


The combination of DCA and ATO was more effective at inhibiting cell proliferation and inducing cell death than either drug alone. We examined the effect of these treatments on mitochondrial membrane potential, reactive oxygen species production and ATP levels and have identified new molecular mechanisms within the mitochondria for both ATO and DCA: ATO reduces mitochondrial function through the inhibition of cytochrome C oxidase (complex IV of the electron transport chain) while DCA up-regulates ATP synthase β subunit expression. The potentiation of ATO cytotoxicity by DCA is correlated with strong suppression of the expression of c-Myc and HIF-1α, and decreased expression of the survival protein Bcl-2.


This study is the first to demonstrate that targeting two key metabolic hallmarks of cancer is an effective anti-cancer strategy with therapeutic potential.

Dichloroacetate; breast cancer; electron transport chain; mitochondria; arsenic trioxide