Methanethiol: A Scent Mark of Dysregulated Sulfur Metabolism in Cancer

In order to cope with increased demands for energy and metabolites as well as to enhance stress resilience, tumor cells develop various metabolic adaptations, representing a hallmark of cancer. In this regard, the dysregulation of sulfur metabolism that may result in elevated levels of volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) in body fluids, breath, and/or excretions of cancer patients has recently gained attention. Besides hydrogen sulfide (H 2 S), methanethiol is the predominant cancer-associated VSC and has been proposed as a promising biomarker for non-invasive cancer diagnosis. Gut bacteria are the major exogenous source of exposure to this foul-smelling toxic gas, with methanethiol-producing strains such as Fusobacterium nucleatum highly abundant in the gut microbiome of colorectal carcinoma (CRC) patients. Physiologically, methanethiol becomes rapidly degraded through the methanethiol oxidase (MTO) activity of selenium-binding protein 1 (SELENBP1). However, SELENBP1, which is considered a tumor suppressor, is often downregulated in tumor tissues, and this has been epidemiologically linked to poor clinical outcomes. In addition to impaired removal, an increase in methanethiol levels may derive from non-enzymatic reactions, such as a Maillard reaction between glucose and methionine, two metabolites enriched in cancer cells. High methionine concentrations in cancer cells may also result in enzymatic methanethiol production in mitochondria. Moreover, enzymatic endogenous methanethiol production may occur through methyltransferase-like protein 7B (METTL7B), which is present at elevated levels in some cancers, including CRC and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). In conclusion, methanethiol contributes to the scent of cancer as part of the cancer-associated signature combination of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are increasingly being exploited for non-invasive early cancer diagnosis.


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