Background: The antihyperglycemic drug metformin may have beneficial effects on the prevention and treatment of cancer. Metformin is known to activate AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). It has also been shown to inhibit cyclin D1 expression and proliferation of some cultured cancer cells. However, the mechanisms of action by which metformin mediates cell cycle arrest are not completely understood.
Results: In this study, metformin was found to inhibit proliferation of most cultured breast cancer cell lines. This was independent of estrogen receptor, HER2, or p53 status. Inhibition of cell proliferation was associated with arrest within G0/G1 phase of the cell cycle. As in previous studies, metformin treatment led to activation of (AMPK) and downregulation of cyclin D1. However, these events were not sufficient for cell cycle arrest because they were also observed in the MDA-MB-231 cell line, which is not sensitive to growth arrest by metformin. In sensitive breast cancer lines, the reduction in cyclin D1 led to release of sequestered CDK inhibitors, p27Kip1 and p21Cip1, and association of these inhibitors with cyclin E/CDK2 complexes. The metformin-resistant cell line MDA-MB-231 expresses significantly lower levels of p27Kip1 and p21Cip1 than the metformin-sensitive cell line, MCF7. When p27Kip1 or p21Cip1 were overexpressed in MDA-MB-231, the cells became sensitive to cell cycle arrest in response to metformin.
Conclusion: Cell cycle arrest in response to metformin requires CDK inhibitors in addition to AMPK activation and cyclin D1 downregulation. This is of interest because many cancers are associated with loss or downregulation of CDK inhibitors and the results may be relevant to the development of anti-tumor reagents that target the AMPK pathway.