Targeted killing of a mammalian cell based upon its specialized metabolic state

Peter B. Alexander, Jian Wang, Steven L. McKnight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Mouse ES cells use a mitochondrial threonine dehydrogenase (TDH) enzyme to catabolize threonine into glycine and acetyl-CoA. Measurements of mRNA abundance have given evidence that ES cells express upwards of 1,000-fold higher levels of TDH mRNA than any of seven other mouse tissues tested. When cell culture medium is deprived of threonine, ES cells rapidly discontinue DNA synthesis, arrest cell division, and eventually die. Such studies led to the conclusion that mouse ES cells exist in a threonine-dependent metabolic state. Proceeding with the assumption that the active TDH enzyme should be essential for the growth and viability of mouse ES cells, we performed a drug screen in search of specific inhibitors of the purified TDH enzyme. Such efforts led to the discovery of a class of quinazolinecarboxamide (Qc) compounds that inhibit the ability of the TDH enzyme to catabolize threonine into glycine and acetyl-CoA. Administration of Qc inhibitors of TDH to mouse ES cells impeded cell growth and resulted in the induction of autophagy. By contrast, the same chemicals failed to affect the growth of HeLa cells at concentrations 300-fold higher than that required to kill mouse ES cells. It was likewise observed that the Qc class of TDH inhibitors failed to affect the growth or viability of ES cell-derived embryoid body cells known to have extinguished TDH expression. These studies demonstrate how it is possible to kill a specific mammalian cell type on the basis of its specialized metabolic state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15828-15833
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
StatePublished - Oct 20 2011


  • Embryonic stem cells
  • Specialized metabolism
  • Threonine catabolism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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