The antidiabetic drug metformin suppresses HER2 (erbB-2) oncoprotein overexpression via inhibition of the mTOR effector p70S6K1 in human breast carcinoma cells

Cell Cycle. 2009 Jan 1;8(1):88-96. doi: 10.4161/cc.8.1.7499. Epub 2009 Jan 1.


Population studies have revealed that treatment with the antidiabetic drug metformin significantly associates with reduced breast cancer risk. Animal studies have shown that metformin suppresses the development of mammary carcinomas in transgenic female mice carrying a HER2 oncogene, but not that of spontaneous tumors. We herein demonstrate that HER2 oncoprotein itself may represent a key cellular target involved in the anti-breast cancer actions of metformin. First, ectopical overexpression of HER2 oncogene significantly enhances metformin-induced breast cancer cell growth inhibition. Second, metformin treatment drastically downregulates HER2 protein levels (up to 85% reduction) in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Metformin-induced inhibition of HER2 take places regardless the molecular mechanism contributing to HER2 overexpression (i.e., human HER2 cDNA exogenously driven by a viral promoter and naturally occurring endogenous HER2 gene amplification). Mechanistically, metformin-induced suppression of HER2 overexpression appears to occur via direct (AMPK-independent) inhibition of p70S6K1 activity. Compound C- and small interference RNA (siRNA)-induced blockade of AMPK activity/expression fail to prevent the anti-HER2 effect of metformin while AMPK hyperactivation following exposure to the AMP analog AICAR is not sufficient to downregulate HER2 expression. HER2-positive breast cancer cells transfected with p70S6K1 siRNA become completely refractory to metformin-induced HER2 suppression. Of note, co-incubation with agents that block reactive oxygen species (ROS) production (e.g., N-acetylcysteine) dramatically enhanced the ability of metformin to decrease HER2 expression. From the perspective of chemoprevention, these findings altogether suggest that metformin might exert a protective mostly confined to the HER2-positive breast cancer subtype. From the perspective of intervention, the presence/absence of molecular hallmarks such as HER2 overexpression and/or p70S6K1 hyperactivation might dictate alternative responses in metformin-based treatment of early breast cancer. The importance of mTOR/p70S6K1-sensed ROS status at mediating the anti-oncogenic effects of metformin might represent a previously unrecognized linkage molecularly connecting its anti-aging and anti-cancer actions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Enzyme Activation / drug effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Metformin / pharmacology*
  • Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism*
  • Ribosomal Protein S6 Kinases, 70-kDa / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Time Factors


  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Metformin
  • Protein Kinases
  • AMP-activated protein kinase kinase
  • MTOR protein, human
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • mTOR protein, mouse
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • Ribosomal Protein S6 Kinases, 70-kDa