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Cancer metastasis requires the transient activation of cellular programs enabling dissemination and seeding in distant organs. Genetic, transcriptional and translational intra-tumor heterogeneity contributes to this dynamic process. Beyond this, metabolic intra-tumor heterogeneity has also been observed, yet its role for cancer progression remains largely elusive. Here, we discovered that intra-tumor heterogeneity in phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH) protein expression drives breast cancer cell dissemination and metastasis formation. Specifically, we observed intra-tumor heterogeneous PHGDH expression in primary breast tumors, with low PHGDH expression being indicative of metastasis in patients. In mice, Phgdh protein, but not mRNA, expression is low in circulating tumor cells and early metastatic lesions, leading to increased dissemination and metastasis formation. Mechanistically, low PHGDH protein expression induces an imbalance in glycolysis that can activate sialic acid synthesis. Consequently, cancer cells undergo a partial EMT and show increased p38 as well as SRC phosphorylation, which activate cellular programs of dissemination. In turn, inhibition of sialic acid synthesis through knock-out of cytidine monophosphate N-acetylneuraminic acid synthetase (CMAS) counteracts the increased cancer cell dissemination and metastasis induced by low PHGDH expression. In conclusion, we find that heterogeneity in PHGDH protein expression promotes cancer cell dissemination and metastasis formation.

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