Three possible mechanisms to explain how the AMPK-activating drugs metformin or phenformin might provide protection against cancer. (a) Metformin acts on the liver and other insulin target tissues by activating AMPK (and probably via other targets), normalizing blood glucose; this reduces insulin secretion from pancreatic β cells, reducing the growth-promoting effects of insulin (and high glucose) on tumor cells. Since metformin does not reduce glucose levels in normoglycemic individuals, this mechanism would only operate in insulin-resistant subjects. (b) Metformin or phenformin activates AMPK in pre-neoplastic cells, restraining their growth and proliferation and thus delaying the onset of tumorigenesis; this mechanism would only operate in cells where the LKB1-AMPK pathway was intact. (c) Metformin or phenformin inhibits mitochondrial ATP synthesis in tumor cells, promoting cell death. If the LKB1-AMPK pathway was down-regulated in the tumor cells, they would be more sensitive to cell death induced by the biguanides than surrounding normal cells.
Hardie and Alessi BMC Biology 2013 11:36 doi:10.1186/1741-7007-11-36