The KEAP1-NRF2 system is a sulfur-employing defense mechanism against oxidative and electrophilic stress. NRF2 is a potent transcription activator for genes mediating sulfur-involving redox reactions, and KEAP1 controls the NRF2 activity in response to the stimuli by utilizing reactivity of sulfur atoms. In many human cancer cells, the KEAP1-mediated regulation of NRF2 activity is abrogated, resulting in the persistent activation of NRF2. Persistently activated NRF2 drives malignant progression of cancers by increasing therapeutic resistance and promoting aggressive tumorigenesis, a state termed as NRF2 addiction. In NRF2-addicted cancer cell, NRF2 contributes to metabolic reprogramming in cooperation with other oncogenic pathways. In particular, NRF2 strongly activates cystine uptake coupled with glutamate excretion and glutathione synthesis, which increases consumption of intracellular glutamate. Decreased availability of glutamate limits anaplerosis of the TCA cycle, resulting in low mitochondrial respiration, and nitrogen source, resulting in the high dependency on exogenous non-essential amino acids. The highly enhanced glutathione synthesis is also likely to alter sulfur metabolism, which can contribute to the maintenance of the mitochondrial membrane potential in normal cells. The potent antioxidant and detoxification capacity supported by abundant production of glutathione is achieved at the expense of central carbon metabolism and requires skewed metabolic flow of sulfur. These metabolic features of NRF2 addiction status provide clues for novel therapeutic strategies to target NRF2-addicted cancer cells.
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