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Modeling the bidirectional glutamine/ammonium conversion between cancer cells and cancer-associated fibroblasts.


Like in an ecosystem, cancer and other cells residing in the tumor microenvironment engage in various modes of interactions to buffer the negative effects of environmental changes. One such change is the consumption of common nutrients (such as glutamine/Gln) and the consequent accumulation of toxic metabolic byproducts (such as ammonium/NH4). Ammonium is a waste product of cellular metabolism whose accumulation causes cell stress. In tumors, it is known that it can be recycled into nutrients by cancer associated fibroblasts (CAFs). Here we present monoculture and coculture growth of cancer cells and CAFs on different substrates: glutamine and ammonium. We propose a mathematical model to aid our understanding. We find that cancer cells are able to survive on ammonium and recycle it to glutamine for limited periods of time. CAFs are able to even grow on ammonium. In coculture, the presence of CAFs results in an improved survival of cancer cells compared to their monoculture when exposed to ammonium. Interestingly, the ratio between the two cell populations is maintained under various concentrations of NH4, suggesting the ability of the mixed cell system to survive temporary metabolic stress and sustain the size and cell composition as a stable entity.

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