Tumor cell metabolism differs from that of normal cells, conferring tumors with metabolic advantages but affording opportunities for therapeutic intervention. Accordingly, metabolism-targeting therapies have shown promise. However, drugs targeting singular metabolic pathways display limited efficacy, in part due to the tumor’s ability to compensate by using other metabolic pathways to meet energy and growth demands. Thus, it is critical to identify novel combinations of metabolism-targeting drugs to improve therapeutic efficacy in the face of compensatory cellular response mechanisms. Our lab has previously identified that the anti-cancer activity of propranolol, a non-selective beta-blocker, is associated with inhibition of mitochondrial metabolism in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). In response to propranolol, however, HNSCC exhibits heightened glycolytic activity, which may limit the effectiveness of propranolol as a single agent. Thus, we hypothesized that propranolol’s metabolic effects promote a state of enhanced glucose dependence, and that propranolol together with glycolytic inhibition would provide a highly effective therapeutic combination in HNSCC. Here, we show that glucose deprivation synergizes with propranolol for anti-cancer activity, and that the rational combination of propranolol and dichloroacetate (DCA), a clinically available glycolytic inhibitor, dramatically attenuates tumor cell metabolism and mTOR signaling, inhibits proliferation and colony formation, and induces apoptosis. This therapeutic combination displays efficacy in both human papillomavirus-positive (HPV(+)) and HPV(−) HNSCC cell lines, as well as a recurrent/metastatic model, while leaving normal tonsil epithelial cells relatively unaffected. Importantly, the combination significantly delays tumor growth in vivo with no evidence of toxicity. Additionally, the combination of propranolol and DCA enhances the effects of chemoradiation and sensitizes resistant cells to cisplatin and radiation. This novel therapeutic combination represents a promising treatment strategy which may overcome some of the limitations of targeting individual metabolic pathways in cancer.
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