The potential role of vitamin C in cancer prevention and treatment remains controversial. While normal human cells obtain vitamin C as ascorbic acid, the prevalent form of vitamin C in vivo, the uptake mechanisms by which cancer cells acquire vitamin C has remained unclear. The aim of this study is to characterize how breast cancer cells acquire vitamin C. For this, we determined the expression of vitamin C transporters in normal and breast cancer tissue samples, and in ZR-75, MCF-7, MDA-231 and MDA-468 breast cancer cell lines. At the same time, reduced (AA) and oxidized (DHA) forms of vitamin C uptake experiments were performed in all cell lines.
We show here that human breast cancer tissues differentially express a form of SVCT2 transporter, that is systematically absent in normal breast tissues and it is increased in breast tumors. In fact, estrogen receptor negative breast cancer tissue, exhibit the most elevated SVCT2 expression levels. Despite this, our analysis in breast cancer cell lines showed that these cells are not able to uptake ascorbic acid and depend on glucose transporter for the acquisition of vitamin C by a bystander effect. This is consistent with our observations that this form of SVCT2 is completely absent from the plasma membrane and is overexpressed in mitochondria of breast cancer cells, where it mediates ascorbic acid transport. This work shows that breast cancer cells acquire vitamin C in its oxidized form and are capable of accumulated high concentrations of the reduced form. Augmented expression of an SVCT2 mitochondrial form appears to be a common hallmark across all human cancers and might have implications in cancer cells survival capacity against pro-oxidant environments.