ATG12 deficiency results in intracellular glutamine depletion, abrogation of tumor hypoxia and a favorable prognosis in cancer

T.G. Keulers, A. Koch, M.W. van Gisbergen, L.M.O. Barbeau, M.I. Zonneveld, M.C. de Jong, K.G.M. Savelkouls, R.G. Wanders, J. Bussink, V. Melotte, K.M.A. Rouschop*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Hypoxia is a common feature of solid tumors and is associated with increased tumor progression, resistance to therapy and increased metastasis. Hence, tumor hypoxia is a prognostic factor independent of treatment modality. To survive hypoxia, cells activate macroautophagy/autophagy. Paradoxically, in several cancer types, mutations or loss of essential autophagy genes have been reported that are associated with earlier onset of tumor growth. However, to our knowledge, the phenotypic and therapeutic consequences of autophagy deficiency have remained unexplored. In this study, we determined autophagy-defects in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) and observed that expression of ATG12 (autophagy related 12) was lost in 25%-40% of HNSCC. In line, ATG12 loss is associated with absence of hypoxia, as determined by pimonidazole immunohistochemistry. Hence, ATG12 loss is associated with improved prognosis after therapy in two independent HNSCC cohorts and 7 additional cancer types. In vivo, ATG12 targeting resulted in decreased hypoxia tolerance, increased necrosis and sensitivity of the tumor to therapy, but in vitro ATG12-deficient cells displayed enhanced survival in nutrient-rich culture medium. Besides oxygen, delivery of glucose was hampered in hypoxic regions in vivo, which increases the reliance of cells on other carbon sources (e.g., L-glutamine). We observed decreased intracellular L-glutamine levels in ATG12-deficient cells during hypoxia and increased cell killing after L-glutamine depletion, indicating a central role for ATG12 in maintaining L-glutamine homeostasis. Our results demonstrate that ATG12(low) tumors represent a phenotypically different subtype that, due to the lowered hypoxia tolerance, display a favorable outcome after therapy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1898-1914
Number of pages17
Issue number8
Early online date15 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2022


  • Autophagy
  • cancer
  • glucose
  • head and neck cancer
  • hypoxia
  • prognosis
  • radiotherapy glutamine
  • HEAD
  • NECK
  • GENE


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