The amino acid arginine has been shown to affect the growth of several tumours, although the mechanisms of its action are not clear. In the present study, using a human breast tumour cell line (MCF-7), we investigated the arginine requirements of tumour cells for optimal protein synthesis and growth, and the metabolic pathway responsible for the arginine-dependent growth. The results showed that MCF-7 cells are highly dependent on arginine for growth and that the requirement for arginine is much higher than for an indispensable amino acid, leucine, indicating that arginine is needed for pathways other than protein synthesis. In arginine-free cultures, growth could be completely restored by the urea cycle intermediate citrulline. However, arginine could not be replaced by the urea cycle intermediate and the direct precursor for polyamine synthesis, ornithine, or by the polyamine putrescine, suggesting that the high dependence on arginine is not due to a requirement for polyamine synthesis. Moreover, inhibition of NOS [NO (nitric oxide) synthase] did not affect cell protein synthesis and growth, and the arginine analogue and substrate for NOS, homoarginine, could not replace arginine, implying that the conversion of arginine into NO is not involved in the growth-promoting effects of arginine. The major determinant for the high dependence of MCF-7 cells for arginine was found to be the irreversible conversion of this amino acid into ornithine by the intracellular enzyme arginase. The conversion into ornithine caused a progressive depletion of arginine from the culture medium, which ultimately inhibited cell protein synthesis and halted growth. Intracellular arginase activity may be the major factor determining the requirement for arginine of all cells in culture.

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