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Metformin-mediated growth inhibition involves suppression of the IGF-I receptor signalling pathway in human pancreatic cancer cells

Emelie Karnevi, Katarzyna Said, Roland Andersson* and Ann H Rosendahl

Author Affiliations

Department of Surgery, Clinical Sciences Lund, Skåne University Hospital and Lund University, Lund SE-221 84, Sweden

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BMC Cancer 2013, 13:235  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-13-235

Published: 10 May 2013



Epidemiological studies have shown direct associations between type 2 diabetes and obesity, both conditions associated with hyperglycaemia and hyperinsulinemia, and the risk of pancreatic cancer. Up to 80% of pancreatic cancer patients present with either new-onset type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance at the time of diagnosis. Recent population studies indicate that the incidence of pancreatic cancer is reduced among diabetics taking metformin. In this study, the effects of exposure of pancreatic cancer cells to high glucose levels on their growth and response to metformin were investigated.


The human pancreatic cancer cell lines AsPC-1, BxPC-3, PANC-1 and MIAPaCa-2 were grown in normal (5 mM) or high (25 mM) glucose conditions, with or without metformin. The influence by metformin on proliferation, apoptosis and the AMPK and IGF-IR signalling pathways were evaluated in vitro.


Metformin significantly reduced the proliferation of pancreatic cancer cells under normal glucose conditions. Hyperglycaemia however, protected against the metformin-induced growth inhibition. The anti-proliferative actions of metformin were associated with an activation of AMP-activated protein kinase AMPKThr172 together with an inhibition of the insulin/insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) receptor activation and downstream signalling mediators IRS-1 and phosphorylated Akt. Furthermore, exposure to metformin during normal glucose conditions led to increased apoptosis as measured by poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) cleavage. In contrast, exposure to high glucose levels promoted a more robust IGF-I response and Akt activation which correlated to stimulated AMPKSer485 phosphorylation and impaired AMPKThr172 phosphorylation, resulting in reduced anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects by metformin.


Our results indicate that metformin has direct anti-tumour activities in pancreatic cancer cells involving AMPKThr172 activation and suppression of the insulin/IGF signalling pathways. However, hyperglycaemic conditions enhance the insulin/IGF-I responses resulting in an altered AMPK activation profile and prevent metformin from fully switching off the growth promoting signals in pancreatic cancer cells.

Pancreatic cancer; Type 2 diabetes mellitus; Hyperglycaemia; Metformin; Insulin-like growth factor (IGF); Signalling