A drug used to treat type 2 diabetes has the ability to “block” cancer growth, a study has found.
Metformin has been prescribed to lower blood sugar levels of people with type 2 diabetes for over half a decade, and now American researchers have shed new light on its health-promoting effects.
The drug can stop or slow down particular types of cancer – including breast, prostate and pancreatic – and a study team from Massachusetts General Hospital are trying to understand how.
In this new study, published in the journal Cell, they report discovering a single genetic cell pathway that supports metformin’s ability to halt human cancer cell growth.
Study lead Dr Alexander Soukas said: “We found that metformin reduces the traffic of molecules into and out of the nucleus – the ‘information centre’ of the cell. Reduced nucleus traffic translates into the ability of the drug to block cancer growth and, remarkably, is also responsible for metformin’s ability to extend lifespan.
The research is centred on the power of metformin to reduce blood glucose levels through the liver. Studies have shown that metformin halts the activities of structures serving as the cell’s powerhouse known as mitochondria, but Soukas says new evidence demonstrates that this mechanism is more complicated.
His team now believe the process behind metformin’s ability to halt cancer is two-fold, involving the nuclear pore complex, which allows molecules to pass to and from the nucleus with an enzyme called ACAD10.
“Amazingly, this pathway operates identically, whether in the worm or in human cancer cells,” explained Soukas.
“Our experiments showed two very important things: if we force the nuclear pore to remain open or if we permanently shut down ACAD10, metformin can no longer block the growth of cancer. That suggests that the nuclear pore and ACAD10 may be manipulated in specific circumstances to prevent or even treat certain cancers.
“What ACAD10 does is a great mystery that we are greatly interested in solving. Determining exactly how ACAD10 slows cell growth will provide additional insights into novel treatment targets for cancer and possibly ways to manipulate the pathway to promote healthy aging.”