Ascorbate kills breast cancer cells by rewiring metabolism via redox imbalance and energy crisis

Ali Ghanem, Anna Maria Melzer, Esther Zaal, Laura Neises, Danny Baltissen, Omar Matar, Hannah Glennemeier-Marke, Fadi Almouhanna, Jannick Theobald, Mohamed A. Abu el Maaty, Celia Berkers, Stefan Wölfl*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


The idea to use megadoses of ascorbate (vitamin C) for cancer treatment has recently been revived. Despite clear efficacy in animal experimentation, our understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of this treatment is still limited and suggests a combined oxidative and metabolic mechanism behind the selective cytotoxicity of ascorbate towards cancerous cells. To gain more insight into the cellular effects of high doses of ascorbate, we performed a detailed analysis of metabolic changes and cell survival of both luminal and basal-like breast cancer cells treated with ascorbate and revealed a distinctive metabolic shift virtually reversing the Warburg effect and triggering a severe disruption of redox homeostasis. High doses of ascorbate were cytotoxic against MCF7 and MDA-MB231 cells representing luminal and basal-like breast cancer phenotypes. Cell death was dependent on ascorbate-induced oxidative stress and accumulation of ROS, DNA damage, and depletion of essential intracellular co-factors including NAD+/NADH, associated with a multifaceted metabolic rewiring. This included a sharp disruption of glycolysis at the triose phosphate level, a rapid drop in ATP levels, and redirection of metabolites toward lipid droplet accumulation and increased metabolites and enzymatic activity in the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP). High doses of ascorbate also inhibited the TCA cycle and increased oxygen consumption. Together the severe disruptions of the intracellular metabolic homeostasis on multiple levels “redox crisis and energetic catastrophe” consequently trigger a rapid irreversible cell death.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-209
Number of pages14
JournalFree Radical Biology and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Ascorboic acid
  • Breast cancer
  • Cancer
  • Cancer metabolism
  • Metabolic rewiring
  • Oxidative burst
  • Oxidative stress
  • Peroxide
  • Redox
  • Reversing warburg effect
  • Targetting cancer metabolism
  • Vitamin C


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