BCL2 and BCL(X)L selective inhibitors decrease mitochondrial ATP production in breast cancer cells and are synthetically lethal when combined with 2-deoxy-D-glucose.
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Cancer cells display differences regarding their engagement of glycolytic vs. mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) pathway. Triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer, is characterized by elevated glycolysis, while estrogen receptor positive breast cancer cells rely predominantly on OXPHOS. BCL2 proteins control the process of mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization during apoptosis, but also regulate cellular bioenergetics. Because BCL2 proteins are overexpressed in breast cancer and targetable by selective antagonists, we here analysed the effect of BCL2 and BCL(X)L selective inhibitors, Venetoclax and WEHI-539, on mitochondrial bioenergetics and cell death. Employing single cell imaging using a FRET-based mitochondrial ATP sensor, we found that MCF7 breast cancer cells supplied with mitochondrial substrates reduced their mitochondrial ATP production when treated with Venetoclax or WEHI-539 at concentrations that per se did not induce cell death. Treatments with lower concentrations of both inhibitors also reduced the length of the mitochondrial network and the dynamics, as evaluated by quantitative confocal microscopy. We next tested the hypothesis that mitochondrial ATP production inhibition with BCL2 or BCL(X)L antagonists was synthetically lethal when combined with glycolysis inhibition. Treatment with 2-deoxy-D-glucose in combination with Venetoclax or WEHI-539 synergistically reduced the cellular bioenergetics of ER+ and TNBC breast cancer cells and abolished their clonogenic potential. Synthetic lethality was also observed when cultures were grown in 3D spheres. Our findings demonstrate that BCL2 antagonists exert potent effects on cancer metabolism independent of cell death-inducing effects, and demonstrate a synthetic lethality when these are applied in combination with glycolysis inhibitors.