Cancer Patients May Benefit from Diabetic Drug

Metformin, a widely used anti-diabetic drug, has the effect of making cancer therapies and vaccines more effective by boosting the immune system, according to a recently published study.

While the links between cancer and diabetes are not as pronounced and recognized as diabetes and heart disease, for instance, multiple studies in the recent past have uncovered mechanisms that closely parallel each other in both diseases. Specifically, the functions of “metabolic pathways,” or cell function, have been observed to be similar in both conditions, suggesting the potential for treatments and medicines that could be applied to both dangerous diseases. “Many genes involved in diabetes regulation also play a role in cancer progression. There is also a significant body of data suggesting that diabetics are more prone to certain cancers,” explains primary investigator Dr. Russel Jones.

The current study has discovered one such medicine, metformin (marketed under the name glucophage), which enhances T-cell response (characterized by faster “burning” of fatty acids), subsequently boosting the immune system. T-cell’s are white blood cells with memories. When an infection occurs, T-cell’s remember the “pathogens” from the infection, making the fight against the next occurrence of the same, or similar, infection, faster and more efficient. This is how vaccines work; small doses of a particular pathogen are introduced (typhoid fever, for example), the T-cell’s remember the pathogens of typhoid fever, battling and killing them immediately if the vaccinated individual comes into contact with these pathogens in a non-laboratory controlled environment. Metformin is the most widely prescribed anti-diabetic drug in the United States, and is used to control blood-glucose levels in type 2 diabetics. It also helps lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, has few side effects, and may aid in weight loss for obese diabetics.

This immune system boost caused by metformin in turn increases the effectiveness of cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, as well as the fighting of general bacterial infections and the efficiency of vaccinations. Dr. Jones concludes that “our study is the first to suggest that by targeting the same metabolic pathways that play a role in diabetes, you can alter how well your immune system functions. We used metformin, which is known to operate on fatty-acid metabolism, to enhance this process, and have shown experimentally in mice that metformin increases T-cell memory as well as the ensuing protective immunity of an experimental anti-cancer vaccine.” If these findings can be further confirmed and developed in humans, metformin could prove to have incredible preventative potential for numerous conditions, for diabetics and non-diabetics alike. Further emphasizes co-author Dr. Yongwon Choi, “Our findings were unanticipated, but are potentially extremely important and could revolutionize current strategies for both therapeutic and protective vaccines.”

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Jones, Russel. Choi, Yongwon. Nature news release. June 2009.

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