Metformin is widely used to reduce the high blood sugar levels caused by diabetes. Recently, several studies have suggested that patients taking metformin who also develop cancer have tumors that grow more slowly than average. As clinical trials have already started to investigate if metformin is an effective anti-cancer treatment, it is important to understand how it might restrict tumor growth.

Researchers have proposed two ways that metformin could affect tumors. First, insulin is known to prompt cancer cells to divide, so the slower rate of tumor growth could just be a side-effect of the metformin reducing the amount of insulin in the blood. Alternatively, metformin could target cancer cells more directly by cutting the energy supply produced by their mitochondria. Metformin has been shown to disrupt complex I of the electron transport chain that is used by cells to generate energy. However, it is not known if disrupting complex I would actually stop cells dividing because they can generate energy in other ways.

William Wheaton, Samuel Weinberg and colleagues have now demonstrated that metformin does target complex I in cancer cells, and that its effects depend on the amount of glucose available for cells to convert, without involving mitochondria, into energy. When there is plenty of glucose, metformin slows down the rate at which cancer cells divide, which slows down tumor growth. When the cells are deprived of glucose, metformin kills the cells instead.

Metformin also inhibits the pathways that regulate hypoxia inducible factors (HIFs), which are part of a system that helps cells to survive low-oxygen conditions, a prominent feature of many tumors. This means that metformin may combat cancer more effectively if used alongside other treatments that reduce the availability of both oxygen and glucose inside cells. Metformin could also potentially treat conditions that are linked to overactive HIFs, such as pulmonary hypertension.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this story is based: Metformin inhibits mitochondrial complex I of cancer cells to reduce tumorigenesis” (May 13, 2014).

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eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.

The main text on this page was reused (with modification) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International License. The original “eLife digest” can be found in the linked eLife research paper.

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