Skip to content
Gianna DiasApr 18, 2024 5:00:00 AM6 min read

Mitochondrial Function in Tumor Progression and Cancer Drug Discovery

In the expansive field of cancer research, scientists are unraveling the intricate connections between mitochondrial function and tumor development to seek innovative treatment approaches that can address the relentless growth and evasion of cell death exhibited by cancer cells. This exploration delves into the dynamic powerhouses of cells, known as mitochondria, and their critical involvement in cellular processes. 


Mitochondria: More Than Just the Powerhouses of the Cell

The Mitochondrial Connection to Cancer

Targeting Mitochondrial Function in Cancer-drug Discovery



Mitochondria: More Than Just the Powerhouses of the Cell

Mitochondria, often hailed as the dynamic powerhouses fueling our cells, are remarkable organelles responsible for generating cellular energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) - the cell's primary source of energy. Mitochondria contain major enzymatic systems that convert the foods we eat into ATP through oxidative phosphorylation. ATP produced in mitochondria are delivered to the cytosol to be used in myriad cellular processes. 

In addition to this role as a generator of energy, mitochondria are also integral to ion homeostasis. For example, mitochondria store calcium ions and they work with other cellular components, like the endoplasmic reticulum, to control the intracellular calcium concentration. This ion balance is essential to many processes, including proper regulation of metabolism, production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and induction of apoptosis. 

As part of their function as ATP generators, mitochondria also generate ROS. ROS are largely regarded as damaging agents and are associated with many diseases because of their ability to elicit oxidative damage. However, there is also evidence that ROS generation is an essential signal triggered by a cell under great stress as a protective mechanism. 

Furthermore, mitochondria are key players in various cell-signaling cascades. They are key regulators of apoptosis, as permeabilization of the the mitochondrial outer membrane leads to cell death. This membrane permeabilization releases proteins from the intermembrane space into the cytosol to activate caspase proteases for programmed cell death. 

With the wide-ranging roles of mitochondria in the cell, defects in their function have serious implications. Dysfunctional mitochondria are hallmarks of many diseases, and their role in the etiology or pathology of diseases are of great value to drug development. 

The Mitochondrial Connection to Cancer

Cancer cells are notorious for their relentless growth and ability to evade programmed cell death. This uncontrolled proliferation is a hallmark characteristic of cancer, and recent research suggests that alterations in mitochondrial function play a significant role in driving this process. Dysfunctional mitochondria can disrupt the delicate balance of energy production, leading to a cascade of events that fuel tumor growth and metastasis.

When mitochondria become impaired, they produce less ATP.  This energy imbalance triggers a compensatory response; cancer cells switch to alternative energy sources, such as glycolysis, even in the presence of sufficient oxygen. This phenomenon, known as the Warburg effect, allows cancer cells to meet their energy demands while bypassing the normal metabolic pathways. By relying heavily on glycolysis, cancer cells can sustain their rapid growth and proliferation.

However, this altered metabolism comes at a cost. Increased glycolysis leads to the accumulation of harmful byproducts, including ROS. These ROS create a state of increased oxidative stress within the cancer cells, which can further damage mitochondrial DNA and other cellular components. As a result, the cells become more prone to genetic mutations, providing fertile ground for the development of more aggressive tumors.

Furthermore, dysfunctional mitochondria can disrupt the balance between cell survival and programmed cell death. Normally, mitochondria play a crucial role in regulating apoptosis, the process by which damaged or unwanted cells are eliminated. However, when mitochondrial function is impaired, this delicate balance is disrupted, allowing cancer cells to evade death and continue their uncontrolled growth.

The accumulation of genetic mutations, energy imbalance, and increased oxidative stress collectively create an environment that is conducive to tumor growth and metastasis. The altered mitochondrial function in cancer cells not only provides them with the necessary energy for proliferation but also shields them from cell death mechanisms. Understanding the intricate relationship between mitochondrial dysfunction and cancer progression is essential for developing innovative and effective cancer treatments. By targeting mitochondrial function, researchers aim to exploit the vulnerabilities of cancer cells while sparing healthy cells.

Targeting Mitochondrial Function in Cancer-drug Discovery

Given the pivotal role mitochondria play in cancer development, scientists are fervently exploring ways to use this knowledge for therapeutic purposes.

One approach that has recently gained prominence is the groundbreaking research conducted by scientists at the Salk Institute that unveils insights into manipulating an early step in energy production within mitochondria. This manipulation involves altering the electron transport chain, a process that moves electrons through mitochondria, leading to the overproduction of a metabolite called succinate. The manipulation-induced accumulation of succinate activates immune genes and elevates Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) levels on tumor surfaces, rendering cancer cells more visible to "killer" T cells. This unique alteration has been found to reduce melanoma tumor growth and enhance the immune response in mice. [1]

Drug discovery efforts focused on mitochondrial function aim to exploit the vulnerabilities of cancer cells while sparing healthy cells, leading to more effective and less toxic treatment options. Another avenue involves targeting mitochondrial metabolism. Cancer cells exhibit altered metabolic pathways, commonly known as the Warburg effect, where they rely more heavily on glycolysis for energy production, even in the presence of sufficient oxygen (aerobic glycolysis). Researchers are investigating compounds that can selectively disrupt mitochondrial metabolism in cancer cells, crippling their energy production and impeding tumor growth.

Another avenue of exploration is targeting mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike nuclear DNA, mtDNA is exclusively inherited from the mother and encodes essential proteins for mitochondrial function. Mitochondrial DNA mutations have been found in various cancers and are associated with tumor progression and therapy resistance. Therapies aimed at targeting these mutations or exploiting vulnerabilities arising from mtDNA alterations are being intensively investigated.

In addition to targeting mitochondrial metabolism and DNA, scientists are also exploring other aspects of mitochondrial function that could be exploited for cancer treatment. For example, researchers are investigating the role of mitochondrial dynamics, which involves the fusion and fission of mitochondria, in cancer progression. By understanding how changes in mitochondrial dynamics contribute to tumor growth and metastasis, scientists hope to develop targeted therapies that can disrupt these processes and inhibit cancer cell proliferation.

While still in the early stages of research and development, some exciting advancements in mitochondrial-targeted cancer therapies have shown promise. For example, a class of compounds called mitochondria-targeting agents (MTAs) has demonstrated the potential to selectively induce cancer cell death while sparing healthy cells. These MTAs work by accumulating within the mitochondria and disrupting their membrane integrity, leading to the release of pro-apoptotic factors and triggering cell death pathways.


The exploration of mitochondrial function in tumor development and the subsequent efforts in drug discovery represent a dynamic and rapidly evolving field within cancer research. By understanding the critical role of mitochondria in cancer progression, scientists are paving the way for innovative treatment strategies that target the vulnerabilities of cancer cells while minimizing harm to healthy tissues.

As research continues to uncover new insights into the intricacies of mitochondrial function and its relationship with cancer, the prospect of developing more effective and targeted therapies becomes increasingly tangible. By harnessing the power of mitochondria, we may ultimately unlock novel treatment modalities that hold the potential to transform the landscape of cancer care. With continued dedication to unraveling the mysteries of mitochondria, the future of cancer treatment looks brighter than ever before.



[1] Kailash Chandra Mangalhara et al., Manipulating mitochondrial electron flow enhances tumor immunogenicity. Science 381, 1316-1323 (2023). DOI: 10.1126/science.abq1053

[2] Vyas S, Zaganjor E, Haigis MC. Mitochondria and Cancer. Cell. 2016;166(3):555-566. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2016.07.002

[3] Pedersen PL. Warburg, me and Hexokinase 2: Multiple discoveries of key molecular events underlying one of cancers' most common phenotypes, the "Warburg Effect", i.e., elevated glycolysis in the presence of oxygen. J Bioenerg Biomembr. 2007;39(3):211-222. doi:10.1007/s10863-007-9094-x

[4] Vyas S, Zaganjor E, Haigis MC. Mitochondria and Cancer. Cell. 2016;166(3):555-566. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2016.07.002



Gianna Dias

Gianna is a driven young sales professional and recent graduate of Washington State University with a B.S. in Biology. While attending WSU, she worked in a lab studying Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease. Gianna recently moved to Seattle and loves exploring all that the area has to offer. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, skiing, golfing, and traveling with friends and family.