The cystine/glutamate antiporter system xc- in health and disease: From molecular mechanisms to novel therapeutic opportunities

Jan Lewerenz, Sandra J. Hewett, Ying Huang, Maria Lambros, Peter W. Gout, Peter W. Kalivas, Ann Massie, Ilse Smolders, Axel Methner, Mathias Pergande, Sylvia B. Smith, Vadivel Ganapathy, Pamela Maher

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

665 Scopus citations


The antiporter system xc- imports the amino acid cystine, the oxidized form of cysteine, into cells with a 1:1 counter-transport of glutamate. It is composed of a light chain, xCT, and a heavy chain, 4F2 heavy chain (4F2hc), and, thus, belongs to the family of heterodimeric amino acid transporters. Cysteine is the rate-limiting substrate for the important antioxidant glutathione (GSH) and, along with cystine, it also forms a key redox couple on its own. Glutamate is a major neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS). By phylogenetic analysis, we show that system xc - is a rather evolutionarily new amino acid transport system. In addition, we summarize the current knowledge regarding the molecular mechanisms that regulate system xc-, including the transcriptional regulation of the xCT light chain, posttranscriptional mechanisms, and pharmacological inhibitors of system xc-. Moreover, the roles of system xc- in regulating GSH levels, the redox state of the extracellular cystine/cysteine redox couple, and extracellular glutamate levels are discussed. In vitro, glutamate-mediated system x c- inhibition leads to neuronal cell death, a paradigm called oxidative glutamate toxicity, which has successfully been used to identify neuroprotective compounds. In vivo, xCT has a rather restricted expression pattern with the highest levels in the CNS and parts of the immune system. System xc- is also present in the eye. Moreover, an elevated expression of xCT has been reported in cancer. We highlight the diverse roles of system xc- in the regulation of the immune response, in various aspects of cancer and in the eye and the CNS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)522-555
Number of pages34
JournalAntioxidants and Redox Signaling
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 10 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology


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