Lipid droplets, which store triglycerides and cholesterol esters, are a prominent feature of clear cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC). Although their presence in ccRCC is critical for sustained tumorigenesis, their contribution to lipid homeostasis and tumor cell viability is incompletely understood. Here we show that disrupting triglyceride synthesis compromises the growth of both ccRCC tumors and ccRCC cells exposed to tumor-like conditions. Functionally, hypoxia leads to increased fatty acid saturation through inhibition of the oxygen-dependent stearoyl-CoA desaturase (SCD) enzyme. Triglycerides counter a toxic buildup of saturated lipids, primarily by releasing the unsaturated fatty acid oleate (the principal product of SCD activity) from lipid droplets into phospholipid pools. Disrupting this process derails lipid homeostasis, causing overproduction of toxic saturated ceramides and acyl-carnitines as well as activation of the NF-κB transcription factor. Our work demonstrates that triglycerides promote homeostasis by “buffering” specific fatty acids.
Tumors frequently experience hypoxia and serum limitation, which cause a harmful increase in fatty acid saturation. Studying kidney cancer, Ackerman et al. describe a protective role of lipid droplet-resident triglycerides: buffering of the cellular lipid saturation through exchange of mono-unsaturated fatty acids. Inhibiting triglyceride synthesis compromises solid tumor growth.