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Int J Biol Sci 2018; 14(11):1535-1544. doi:10.7150/ijbs.25629

Research Paper

Cellular glucose metabolism is essential for the reduction of cell-impermeable water-soluble tetrazolium (WST) dyes

Linna Xie1, Zichan Dai2, Chunxiu Pang1, Dexin Lin1,✉, Min Zheng1,2,✉

1. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, School of Basic Medical Sciences, Fujian Medical University, Fuzhou, Fujian, 350108, China.
2. Fujian Key Laboratory for Translational Research in Cancer and Neurodegenerative Diseases, Institute for Translational Medicine, Fujian Medical University, Fuzhou, Fujian, 350108, China.


Water-soluble tetrazolium (WST) dyes, such as WST-1 and WST-8, are widely used in cell proliferation and anti-cell-growth drug screen assays. However, the underlying determinants for WST reduction are still largely unknown. In addition, application of tetrazolium-based assays to cellular glucose metabolism studies has not been fully explored. In the present study, we show here that WST-8 reduction is dependent on cellular glucose metabolism. In order to minimize the variance of live cell number during stimulation, we treated cells with different stimuli and performed tetrazolium-based assays within 6 hours. Withdrawal of medium glucose supply greatly attenuated WST-8 reduction but not intracellular ATP levels, while re-adding glucose reconstituted WST-8 reduction, indicating the effect was not due to cell death. The role of glucose on WST-8 reduction is specific since glutamine, fructose or galactose did not substitute for the effect of glucose on WST-8 reduction. Furthermore, inhibition of glucose transporters, intracellular glucose metabolic enzymes or EGFR-PI3K-Akt signaling also attenuated WST-8 reduction. In an attempt to screen inhibitors targeting cellular glucose metabolism from hyperglycemia-associated drugs, it turned out that HIV protease inhibitor, ritonavir, could largely block WST-8 reduction, but not cellular ATP level. Interestingly, ritonavir has been shown to acutely block glucose transport in vitro and in vivo. Taken together, our studies not only demonstrate an essential role of cellular glucose metabolism on WST-8 reduction, but also propose a novel application of tetrazolium-based assays in screening for inhibitors of cellular glucose metabolism when used in combination with ATP assay.

Keywords: water-soluble tetrazolium, cellular glucose metabolism, glycolysis, EGFR-PI3K-Akt, ritonavir, drug screening.

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How to cite this article:
Xie L, Dai Z, Pang C, Lin D, Zheng M. Cellular glucose metabolism is essential for the reduction of cell-impermeable water-soluble tetrazolium (WST) dyes. Int J Biol Sci 2018; 14(11):1535-1544. doi:10.7150/ijbs.25629. Available from