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Diabetes Drug Metformin May Have Anticancer Abilities


You may be familiar with metformin as an inexpensive drug used by millions of people with type 2 diabetes to help control the amount of glucose in their bloodstream. Now a researcher at Michigan State University (MSU) says metformin has demonstrated anticancer abilities as well.

Could metformin be an anticancer drug?

Metformin has been around for close to a century, but the medication did not gain much attention until the late 1950s, when a clinical trial illustrated its use in the treatment of diabetes. Today it is believed to be the most widely used antidiabetic drug in the world, boasting more than 48 million prescriptions in the United States alone in 2010.

For diabetes, metformin works by suppressing the production of glucose (sugar) by the liver. Metformin has also been shown to reduce “bad” cholesterol (LDL, low-density lipoprotein) and triglyceride levels, while also having the added advantage of not promoting weight gain. Its benefit as an anticancer drug had been suggested in earlier research, but this new study provides biological evidence.

According to James Trosko, a pediatric professor at MSU, and his team of researchers from South Korea’s Seoul National University, they now have evidence to support previous studies showing that metformin may reduce the risk of diabetes-associated cancers, such as breast cancer, liver cancer, and pancreatic cancer. The current study focused on breast cancer cells.

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Using culture dishes, the research team grew miniature human breast tumors that activated Oct4A, a specific stem cell gene. The tumors were then exposed to natural estrogen, which is known to stimulate and promote breast cancer, as well as to synthetic chemicals also documented to promote tumor growth or disrupt the endocrine system.

As expected, the estrogen and chemicals triggered an increase in the number and size of the breast tumors, but when metformin was added, the breast tumors reduced dramatically in both number and size. Regardless of how each of the chemicals used in the study lead to an increase in tumor growth, the addition of metformin inhibited tumor growth all the time.

At this point in the research, Trosko noted that “though we still do not know the exact molecular mechanism by which it works, metformin seems to dramatically affect how estrogen and endocrine-disrupting chemicals cause the pre-existing breast cancers to grow.” One hope is that future studies will reveal whether metformin can be used as an anticancer prevention agent and, more specifically, if it can reduce the risk of liver and pancreatic cancers in people who have type 2 diabetes.

IMS: The Use of Medicines in the United States
Michigan State University

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons