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Plasma-free amino acid profiles are predictors of cancer and diabetes development


Type 2 diabetes (T2D) and cancers are two major causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Nowadays, there is convincing evidence of positive associations between T2D and the incidence or prognosis of a wide spectrum of cancers, for example, breast, colon, liver and pancreas. Many observational studies suggest that certain medications used to treat hyperglycemia (or T2D) may affect cancer cells directly or indirectly. The potential mechanisms of the direct T2D cancer links have been hypothesized to be hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycemia and chronic inflammation; however, the metabolic pathways that lead to T2D and cancers still remain elusive. Plasma-free amino acid (PFAA) profiles have been highlighted in their associations with the risks of developing T2D and cancers in individuals with different ethnic groups and degree of obesity. The alterations of PFAAs might be predominately caused by the metabolic shift resulted from insulin resistance. The underlying mechanisms have not been fully elucidated, in particular whether the amino acids are contributing to these diseases development in a causal manner. This review addresses the molecular and clinical associations between PFAA alterations and both T2D and cancers, and interprets possible mechanisms involved. Revealing these interactions and mechanisms may improve our understanding of the complex pathogenesis of diabetes and cancers and improve their treatment strategies.


Diabetes mellitus (DM) and cancer are two severe chronic diseases with tremendous impact on global health. Epidemiologic studies have shown that several forms of cancers, such as liver, pancreas, endometrium, colorectal, breast and bladder, develop more frequently in patients with diabetes.Diabetes (primarily type 2, T2D) and cancers share many common risk factors, for example, aging, physical inactivity, diet and obesity. The potential biologic links between these two diseases are yet incompletely understood but may involve insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance, intertwined with hyperinsulinemia, has been suggested as one of the possible underlying mechanisms for the direct connection between T2D and cancers. T2D is typically preceded by hyperinsulinemia to maintain glucose homeostasis.Additionally, convincing evidence have suggested that hyperinsulinemia may affect the signaling pathways of insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and thus facilitate cancer development and progression.The etiology of insulin resistance has been either focused on lipid-mediated mechanisms or the interplay with obesity, which induces metabolic abnormalities. The latter is partly reflected in the abnormal circulating levels of lipid, protein and other classes of metabolites. Among the numerous metabolites, amino acids may have potential as excellent disease biomarkers because they are involved in protein synthesis and as metabolic regulators. In 1969, hyperaminoacidemia, manifested by elevated plasma-free amino acids (PFAAs) including branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), that is, valine (Val), leucine (Leu), isoleucine (Ile) and aromatic amino acids (AAAs), that is, tyrosine (Tyr) and phenylalanine (Phe) in obese subjects, was reported. Hyperaminoacidemia in obesity may be a manifestation of increased insulin resistance.

Insulin has long been recognized as the regulator of branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase complex, an enzyme complex involved in BCAA catabolism.Insulin resistance has been found to reduce the enzymatic activity of branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase complex and hence suppress BCAA catabolism. This is considered as the plausible etiology of increased BCAA levels in obesity and/or diabetes. Indeed, evidence is accumulating that there is positive association between insulin resistance and circulating concentrations of BCAAs. In addition, insulin resistance was shown to be correlated with the alterations of several other PFAAs, including AAAs, alanine (Ala), proline (Pro) and glycine (Gly).

In recent years, PFAA profiles were found to be significantly altered in patients with diabetes and/or cancers. Little is known about the mechanisms, particularly whether PFAAs are contributing to the development of these diseases in a causal manner. However, the altered PFAA profiling appears to provide a great diagnostic potential and could be a promising biomarker for understanding the etiology and pathogenesis of diabetes and cancers.

Altered PFAA profiles in cancer patients

Cancer cells require certain amino acids, for example, glutamine (Gln), Gly, aspartic acid (Asp) and serine (Ser), for DNA synthesis, building new blood vessels, and duplicating their entire protein contents. They also require amino acids for proteins synthesis. These proteins work as growth-promoting hormones or tumor growth factors. The increase in the amino acid demand may thus lead to a lower availability of PFAAs in cancer patients. Table 1 summarizes twenty studies specifically addressed the alterations of circulating amino acid concentrations in different cancer patients.

Vissers et al.analyzed the PFAA concentrations in three types of cancer patients with different levels of weight loss, that is, breast cancer (without weight loss), colonic cancer (occasional weight loss) and pancreatic cancer (frequent weight loss). They found a significant decrease in arginine (Arg) levels, regardless of tumor types and stages, weight loss or body mass index. This finding suggested that decreased Arg availability was a specific feature of the presence of a malignant tumor. They also revealed that BCAA concentrations were lower in all cancer patients than in age- and sex-matched controls; whereas TAAs were lower only in pancreatic cancer patients. It should be noted that the alterations of PFAA levels depend on the stage and the type of cancers. The study conducted by Gu et al. examined the PFAA profiles in 56 patients with gastric cancer, 28 patients with breast cancer, 33 patients with thyroid cancer and 137 healthy controls which were age matched. It was found that histidine (His) level was significantly decreased in breast cancer patients. Levels of Ser, Ala, Val, lysine (Lys), His, BCAAs, and TAAs were significantly decreased in gastric cancer patients. However, the thyroid cancer patients had significantly increased levels of methionine (Met), Leu, Tyr and Lys (Table 1). Besides the different types of cancers, the variation of PFAA pattern of patients was due to the different disease stages. Most of the patients with breast cancer or thyroid cancer in this study were characterized as early stage, whereas 12 of gastric cancer patients were characterized as advanced stage (stage IV). This study also showed that Ala, Arg, Asp and cysteine (Cys) promoted the proliferation of breast cancer cells. Alternatively, Cys promoted the proliferation of gastric cancer cells, but Ala and glutamic acid (Glu) inhibited it. These results underscored the potential function of the assessment of tumor-related PFAA patterns to examine and diagnose various cancers.

Recently, AminoIndex Cancer Screening (AICS) technology was employed as a novel cancer risk calculation method for early stage cancer diagnosis. In order to build AICS, 19 amino acids including threonine (Thr), asparagine (Asn), Ser, Gln, Pro, Gly, Ala, citrulline (Cit), Val, Met, Ile, Leu, Tyr, Phe, His, tryptophan (Trp), ornithine (Orn), Lys and Arg, were measured and statistically analyzed. For the colorectal cancer risk calculation in one case report, plasma levels of Ser, Pro, Val, Met, Ile and Lys were used. The AICS score was found to be 8.3, which indicated that the patient had an ~10-fold-increased risk of cancer. When the patient underwent colonscopy, a 10-mm adenoma-like lesion in the ascending colon with partial carcinoma was observed. The early detection of carcinoma using AICS method allowed complete resection, suggesting that PFAA profiles may provide a fast and easy diagnostic tool for cancers. Another study conducted by Fukutake et al. used Ser, Asp, Ile, Ala, His and Trp as variables to calculate the pancreatic cancer risk and successfully discriminate patients with pancreatic cancer (n=360) from control subjects (n=8372). They also analyzed the levels of 19 amino acids and a significant increase in Ser level and significant decreases in the levels of Thr, Asn, Pro, Ala, Cit, Val, Met, Leu, Tyr, Phe, His, Trp, Lys and Arg were observed in pancreatic cancer patients. Several other studies with small sample size reported similar decreases in circulating amino acid levels in pancreatic cancer patients, which was interpreted as a result of the enhanced usage of PFAAs in tumors. Another possibility for the decreased levels of amino acids was associated with malnutrition. Patients with pancreatic cancer are usually troubled by malnutrition due to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).

However, some studies investigating amino acid levels in plasma or serum samples from patients with breast cancer showed contradictory results (Table 1). Poschkeet al. reported increased levels of Glu, Ser, Gln, Ala, Val, Phe, Ile and Leu in 41 breast cancer patients. One possible explanation could be that the stage of tumor in this study population was categorized as early stage such that it did not reduce the amino acid pool. The increased level of Ser was probably due to the increased enzymatic activity involved in Ser biosynthesis in tumor cells.The increased levels of Glu and Ala may be produced by tumor cells. Similar increment of amino acid levels, that is, Orn, Glu and Trp in breast cancer patients, was observed previously. However, other study demonstrated a decrease of Gln, Tyr, Phe, His and Trp, whereas an increase of Thr, Ser, Pro, Gly, Ala, Orn and Lys, in 196 patients with breast cancer.The above mentioned contradictory results might be attributed to the differences in participant characteristics, including age, gender, ethnic background, diet, and countries where participants live, different measurement techniques applied for PFAA profiles, different diseases stage, and lack of data adjustment for potential confounders. Meanwhile, PFAA profiles may be affected by various factors, including the amount and/or composition of dietary protein, metabolism of muscle protein, as well as the labile protein reserve in different tissues.

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