Int J Biol Sci 2021; 17(11):2772-2794. doi:10.7150/ijbs.60018 This issue

Research Paper

Crosstalk between hypoxia-sensing ULK1/2 and YAP-driven glycolysis fuels pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma development

Yu Jia1, Hui-Yan Li2, Ying Wang3, Jue Wang4, Jing-Wen Zhu2, Yan-Yan Wei2, Lu Lou2, Xing Chen2, Shi-Jing Mo2✉

1. Cancer Research Center, Tongji Hospital, Tongji Medical College, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan 430030, Hubei, P.R.China.
2. General Surgical Laboratory, The First Affiliated Hospital, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, 510080, Guangdong, P.R.China.
3. Department of Surgery, Huashan Hospital, Fudan University, Shanghai 200040, P.R.China.
4. Department of Pathology, The First Affiliated Hospital, Sun Yet-Sen University, Guangzhou 510080, Guangdong, P.R.China.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Jia Y, Li HY, Wang Y, Wang J, Zhu JW, Wei YY, Lou L, Chen X, Mo SJ. Crosstalk between hypoxia-sensing ULK1/2 and YAP-driven glycolysis fuels pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma development. Int J Biol Sci 2021; 17(11):2772-2794. doi:10.7150/ijbs.60018. Available from

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Graphic abstract

Autophagy and glycolysis are two catabolic processes that manipulate pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) development in response to hypoxia sensing, yet the underlying mechanism of how they are interlinked remain elusive.

Methods: The functional roles of Unc-51 like kinase 1 and 2 (ULK1/2) in pyruvate kinase M2 (PKM2) transcription and glycolysis under hypoxia were assessed by chromatin immunoprecipitation, luciferase reporter, glucose consumption and lactate production assay. Co-immunoprecipitation, cellular ubiquitination, His-pulldown, in vitro protein kinase assay, immunofluorescence, immunohistochemistry, CRISPR technology, in silico studies were adopted to determine the molecular mechanism. Correlation analyses were performed in KPC (Pdx1-Cre; LSL-KrasG12D/+; Trp53fl/+) mice and clinical samples from PDAC patients. Therapeutic potential of ULK1/2 inhibitor and 2-deoxyglucose (2-DG) or 3-bromopyruvate (3-BP) was evaluated in cell-derived xenograft (CDX) and the patient-derived xenograft (PDX) models of nude mice.

Results: ULK1/2, but not ULK3, augments hypoxic glycolysis in PDAC cells mediated by PKM2 independent of BCL2/adenovirus E1B 19 kDa interacting protein 3 (BNIP3). Mechanistically, hypoxia stimulates ULK1 to translocate into nucleus, where it interacts with and phosphorylates yes-associated protein (YAP) at Ser227, resulting in YAP stabilization through blockade of ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), which in turn facilitates PKM2 transcription, glycolysis, cell proliferation in vitro as well as PDAC growth in mice. ULK1/2 is positively correlated with YAP and PKM2 in tumor tissues from KPC mice and clinical samples from PDAC patients. Pharmacological deactivation of ULK1/2 potentiates the antineoplastic efficacy of 2-DG and 3-BP in CDX and PDX models.

Conclusion: Our findings underscore the Ser227 autophosphorylation-dependent nuclear YAP stabilization as a central node that couples ULK1/2-initiated autophagy to hypoxic glycolysis during PDAC development and propose that targeting ULK1/2 combined with 2-DG or 3-BP might be a feasible therapeutic strategy against PDAC.

Keywords: Hypoxia sensing, Unc-51 like kinase 1 and 2, Yes-associated protein, Phosphorylation, Glycolysis