Immunotherapy is a growing field in cancer research. A privileged tumor-associated antigen that has received much attention is N-glycolyl (NeuGc) GM3. This ganglioside is present in several types of cancer, but is almost undetectable in human healthy tissues. However, its non-hydroxylated variant, NeuAc GM3, is abundant in all mammals. Due to a deletion in the human gene encoding the key enzyme for synthesis of NeuGc, humans, in contrast to other mammals, cannot synthesize NeuGc GM3. Therefore the presence of this ganglioside in human cancer cells represents an enigma. It has been shown that hypoxic conditions trigger the expression of NeuGc gangliosides, which not only serve as attractive targets for cancer therapy, but also as diagnostic and prognostic tumor marker. Here, we confirm hypoxia-induced expression of the NeuGc GM3 ganglioside also in HeLa cells and reveal several candidate proteins, in particular GM3 synthase and subunit B of respiratory complex II (SDHB), that may be involved in the generation of NeuGc GM3 by SILAC-based proteome analysis. These findings have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of how this enigmatic tumor-associated antigen is produced in humans, and also suggest a possible mechanism of action of anti-tumor antibodies that recognize hypoxia markers, such as 14F7.
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