Sarah-Maria Fendt Lab

Research focus

Our vision is to reach an understanding of cellular metabolism and its regulation that enables us to normalize aberrant disease metabolism by exploiting its naturally embedded control mechanisms. This level of understanding will allow us to design drugs that only target the diseased cells and will yield no side effects on healthy cells. To reach our long-term vision, we reveal functional and mechanistic understanding of cellular metabolism by focusing on metabolic auto-regulation, on the link between cellular metabolism and signaling, and on the regulatory impact of the nutrient environment on cellular metabolism. To gain crucial insights into these research areas we exploit our metabolism expertise, which includes the generation of intracellular metabolism data using steady state 13C tracer infusions to mice, 13C metabolic flux analysis and metabolomics.


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Can we inhibit metastasis formation by targeting cancer metabolism?

​We are investigating how the metabolism of cancer cells changes during metastasis formation. We discovered that proline catabolism via proline dehydrogenase (Prodh) supports growth of breast cancer cells in 3D culture by providing energy in form of ATP. Subsequently, we linked proline catabolism to in vivo metastasis formation. In particular, we found that PRODH expression and proline catabolism is increased in metastases compared to primary breast cancers of patients and mice. Moreover, inhibiting Prodh was sufficient to impair formation of lung metastases in the orthotopic breast cancer mouse models, without adverse effects on healthy tissue and organ function. In conclusion, we discovered that Prodh is a potential drug target for inhibiting metastasis formation… (Elia et al, 2017, Nature Communications).
  Does the microenvironment shape the metabolism of cancer cells during metastasis formation?
​We investigated the role of the microenvironment in shaping cancer metabolism during breast cancer metastasis to the lungs. We discovered that breast cancer-derived lung metastases activate PC-dependent anaplerosis as a function of the nutrient availability within the lung microenvironment. While primary breast cancers often rely on glutamine anaplerosis, the resulting and genetically similar lung metastases activate PC-dependent anaplerosis in response to the lung microenvironment. Thus, we discovered that pyruvate carboxylase-dependent anaplerosis distinguishes lung metastases from their corresponding primary breast cancers. This shows that primary cancer and their resulting metastases can have different metabolic vulnerabilities and consequently should be targeted with different drugs (Christen et al., 2016, Cell Reports).

How can the loss of one and the same enzyme result in two different diseases?

Mutations in succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) are associated with tumor development and neurodegenerative diseases. Only in tumors, loss of SDH activity is accompanied with the loss of complex I activity. Yet, it remains unknown whether the metabolic phenotype of SDH mutant tumors is driven by loss of complex I function, and whether this contributes to the peculiarity of tumor development versus neurodegeneration. We found that sole loss of SDH activity was not sufficient to recapitulate the metabolic phenotype of SDH mutant tumors, because it failed to decrease mitochondrial respiration and to activate reductive glutamine metabolism. These metabolic phenotypes were only induced upon the additional loss of complex I activity. Thus, we show that complex I function defines the metabolic differences between SDH mutation associated tumors and neurodegenerative diseases, which could open novel therapeutic options against both diseases (Lorendeau et al., 2016, Metabolic Engineering).
The latest news can be found below. Interested in more news?


Evidence for an alternative fatty acid desaturation pathway increasing cancer plasticityVriens K* Christen S* Parik S Broekaert D Yoshinaga K Talebi A Dehairs J Escalona C Schmieder R Cornfield T Charlton C Romero-Perez L Rossi M Rinaldi G Orth M Boon R Kerstens A Kwan S Faubert B Mendez-Lucas A Kopitz C Chen T Fernandez Garcia J Duarte J Schmitz A Steigemann P Najimi M Hägebarth A Van Ginderachter J Sokal E Gotoh N Wong K Verfaillie C Derua R Munck S Yuneva M Beretta L Deberardinis R Swinnen J Hodson L Cassiman D Verslype C Christian S Grunewald S Grunewald T Fendt SNATURE, 566, 403-406, 2019* These authors contributed equally
Breast cancer cells rely on environmental pyruvate to shape the metastatic nicheElia I Rossi M* Stegen S* Broekaert D* Doglioni G* Van Gorsel M* Boon R Escalona-Noguero C Torrekens S Verfaillie C Verbeken E Carmeliet G Fendt SNATURE, e-pub, , 2019* These authors contributed equally
Metabolic Hallmarks of Metastasis FormationElia I, Doglioni G, Fendt STRENDS IN CELL BIOLOGY, 28, 673-684, 2018
Proline metabolism supports metastasis formation and could be inhibited to selectively target metastasizing cancer cellsElia I, Broekaert D, Christen S, Boon R, Radaelli E, Orth M, Verfaillie C, Grünewald T, Fendt SNature Communications, 8, 15267, 2017
Breast Cancer-Derived Lung Metastases Show Increased Pyruvate Carboxylase-Dependent AnaplerosisChristen S, Lorendeau D, Schmieder R, Broekaert D, Metzger K, Veys K, Elia I, Buescher J, Orth M, Davidson S, Grünewald T, De Bock K, Fendt SCell Reports, 17, 837-848, 2016

Job openings


Breast cancer cells rely on pyruvate to expand in new tissues

04/03/2019 - Cancer cells alter their metabolism to grow and expand across other organs. A study by Sarah-Maria Fendt & team (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) shown that breast cancer cells require the nutrient pyruvate to do this.

VIB welcomes new Marie Curie fellows

04/03/2019 - Each year, the EU launches calls for postdoc research fellowships through the Marie Sklodowksa-Curie Actions. Fellowships provided through these actions support researchers regardless of age & nationality.

A hidden route for fatty acids can make cancers resistant to therapy

06/02/2019 - Researchers from the lab of Prof. Sarah-Maria Fendt at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology now demonstrate that certain tumor cells use an alternative – previously unexplored - pathway to produce fatty acids.

ERC Consolidator Grants for three VIB scientists: boost for innovative research

28/11/2017 - The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded 3 VIB scientists a consolidator grant: Anna Sablina, Sarah-Maria Fendt and Massimiliano Mazzone, all from the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology.

Researchers identify nutrient metabolism that drives breast tumor metastasis

11/05/2017 - ​A group of scientists, led by Sarah-Maria Fendt (VIB-KU Leuven), discovered that breast cancer cells that have invaded other organs rely on different nutrient metabolism to produce energy than normal cells and non-metastasizing cancer cells.

Research from the group of Sarah Fendt reveals how succinate dehydrogenase is linked to both tumor and neurodegeneration

15/11/2016 - Sarah-Maria Fendt (VIB-KU Leuven): “In this project we have studied mutations in the enzyme succinate dehydrogenase, which are associated with tumors, but also neurodegeneration.

Scientists uncover how spreading cancer adapts to its environment

11/10/2016 - Spreading tumor cells are able to adapt their metabolism to the specific organs they are invading. This conclusion forms the gist of a VIB-KU Leuven paper published in the renowned scientific journal Cell Reports.

Sarah-Maria Fendt (VIB/KU Leuven) guest editor of Current Opinion in Biotechnology (vol34)

19/10/2015 - Systems biology provides a unifying framework for biological data collection, analysis and informed intervention. In both biotechnology and biomedicine the ultimate goal is to understand and redirect or repair biological processes.

New insights in function of fatty acids in metabolism of endothelial cells

10/07/2015 - Sandra Schoors, Ulrike Bruning, Sarah-Maria Fendt and Peter Carmeliet (VIB Vesalius Research Center, KU Leuven) have discovered, contrary to all expectations, that fatty acid breakdown is essential for the proliferation of endothelial cells.

VIB conference - Metabolism in Cancer and Stromal Cells

01/07/2015 - From September 8 – 10, 2015 VIB will host the interdisciplinary meeting on “Metabolism in Cancer and Stromal Cells” in Leuven.

Revolutionary new insights into blood vessel formation in cancer

01/04/2015 - Peter Carmeliet and Sarah-Maria Fendt (VIB/ KU Leuven) have discovered a new strategy to counteract blood vessel formation, based on their research which indicates that fatty acid breakdown is essential in the creation of new blood vessels.

Sarah-Maria Fendt

Sarah-Maria Fendt

Research area(s)

Model organism(s)


PhD: ETH Zurich, Institute of Molecular Systems Biology, 2009
Postdoctoral Fellow: Harvard Medical School, Boston, 2010
Postdoctoral Fellow: Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Cambridge, 2011-2012
VIB Group leader since 2013

Contact Info

VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer BiologyO&N 4, 9e verdCampus GasthuisbergHerestraat 49, bus 912 3000 LEUVENRoute description