Proline, glutamine, asparagine, and arginine are conditionally non-essential amino acids that can be produced in our body. However, they are essential for the growth of highly proliferative cells such as cancers. Many cancers express reduced levels of these amino acids and thus require import from the environment. Meanwhile, the biosynthesis of these amino acids is inter-connected but can be intervened individually through the inhibition of key enzymes of the biosynthesis of these amino acids, resulting in amino acid starvation and cell death. Amino acid starvation strategies have been in various stages of clinical applications. Targeting asparagine using asparaginase has been approved for treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Targeting glutamine and arginine starvations are in various stages of clinical trials, and targeting proline starvation is in preclinical development. The most important obstacle of these therapies is drug resistance, which is mostly due to reactivation of the key enzymes involved in biosynthesis of the targeted amino acids and reprogramming of compensatory survival pathways via transcriptional, epigenetic, and post-translational mechanisms. Here, we review the interactive regulatory mechanisms that control cellular levels of these amino acids for amino acid starvation therapy and how drug resistance is evolved underlying treatment failure.
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