For some time, there has been evidence to suggest a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes could slow certain types of cancers. Until now, we didn’t know why.

For quite some time, there has been evidence to suggest that a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, known as metformin, can also slow certain types of cancers. Until now, researchers didn’t know why metformin had this effect.

Alexander Soukas, MD, PhD
Alexander Soukas, MD, PhD

A research team at Massachusetts General Hospital, led by Alexander Soukas, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator for several studies at Mass General’s Center for Genomic Medicine, has revealed a new biological discovery that could be a target for drugs that fight cancer and appears to be responsible for metformin’s ability to block the growth of human cancer cells.

“We found that metformin reduces the traffic of molecules into and out of the nucleus – the ‘information center’ of the cell,” says Dr. Soukas. “Reduced nuclear traffic translates into the ability of the drug to block cancer growth and, remarkably, is also responsible for metformin’s ability to extend lifespan.”

Focus on Healthy Aging

By shedding new light on a certain diabetes drug’s health-promoting effects, we’re discovering new ways to think about treating cancer.

By shedding new light on metformin’s health-promoting effects, these results offer new potential ways that we can think about treating cancer and increasing healthy aging.

Several studies have suggested that individuals taking metformin have a reduced risk of developing certain cancers and of dying from cancers that do develop. Current clinical trials are testing the impact of metformin on cancers of the breast, prostate and pancreas; and several research groups are working to identify its molecular targets.

Therapies that Transform Lives

Dr. Soukas’s team had observed that, just as it blocks the growth of cancer cells, metformin slows growth in a tiny roundworm called C.elegans — suggesting that this creature could serve as a model for investigating the drug’s effects on human cancers.

“Amazingly, this pathway operates identically, whether in the worm or in human cancer cells,” says Dr. Soukas. The experiments revealed two possible approaches for fighting cancer — manipulation of cells’ internal gateways (called nuclear pores) and of the gene ACAD10. “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 cells,” explains Dr. Soukas. “That suggests that the nuclear pore and ACAD10 may be manipulated in specific circumstances to prevent or even treat certain cancers.”

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