Repurposing the Antidepressant Sertraline as SHMT Inhibitor to Suppress Serine/Glycine Synthesis-Addicted Breast Tumor Growth

S.L. Geeraerts, K.R. Kampen, G. Rinaldi, P. Gupta, M. Planque, N. Louros, E. Heylen, K. De Cremer, K. De Brucker, S. Vereecke, B. Verbelen, P. Vermeersch, J. Schymkowitz, F. Rousseau, D. Cassiman, S.M. Fendt, A. Voet, B.P.A. Cammue, K. Thevissen*, K. De Keersmaecker*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Metabolic rewiring is a hallmark of cancer that supports tumor growth, survival, and chemotherapy resistance. Although normal cells often rely on extracellular serine and glycine supply, a significant subset of cancers becomes addicted to intracellular serine/glycine synthesis, offering an attractive drug target. Previously developed inhibitors of serine/glycine synthesis enzymes did not reach clinical trials due to unfavorable pharmacokinetic profiles, implying that further efforts to identify clinically applicable drugs targeting this pathway are required. In this study, we aimed to develop therapies that can rapidly enter the clinical practice by focusing on drug repurposing, as their safety and cost-effectiveness have been optimized before. Using a yeast model system, we repurposed two compounds, sertraline and thimerosal, for their selective toxicity against serine/glycine synthesis-addicted breast cancer and T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia cell lines. Isotope tracer metabolomics, computational docking, enzymatic assays, and drug-target interaction studies revealed that sertraline and thimerosal inhibit serine/glycine synthesis enzymes serine hydroxymethyltransferase and phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase, respectively. In addition, we demonstrated that sertraline's antiproliferative activity was further aggravated by mitochondrial inhibitors, such as the antimalarial artemether, by causing G(1)-S cell-cycle arrest. Most notably, this combination also resulted in serine-selective antitumor activity in breast cancer mouse xenografts. Collectively, this study provides molecular insights into the repurposed mode-of-action of the antidepressant sertraline and allows to delineate a hitherto unidentified group of cancers being particularly sensitive to treatment with sertraline. Furthermore, we highlight the simultaneous inhibition of serine/glycine synthesis and mitochondrial metabolism as a novel treatment strategy for serine/glycine synthesis-addicted cancers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-63
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular Cancer Therapeutics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2021


  • artemisinins
  • biosynthesis pathway
  • cancer
  • dehydrogenase
  • expression
  • glycine
  • identification
  • metabolism
  • mitochondrial serine hydroxymethyltransferase
  • one-carbon unit

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