Background: This study examined whether metformin administration inhibited chemically induced mammary carcinogenesis in rats. In cancer prevention, metformin may act (1) indirectly through reducing systemic risk factors; or (2) directly through AMPK-mediated signaling. To begin to delineate clinically relevant mechanisms for breast cancer prevention, metformin was also studied along with dietary energy restriction.
Materials and methods: Mammary cancer was induced in female Sprague--Dawley rats (50 mg/kg MNU, i.p.). Metformin was fed alone (AIN93G + 0.05 to 1.0% w/w metformin) or combined with 40% dietary energy restriction. Plasma analytes (e.g., insulin, glucose, IGF-1) and protein expression (e.g., AMPK, mTOR, Akt) in mammary carcinomas and liver were evaluated. Additional studies included (1) aldehyde dehydrogenase flow cytometry, to gauge potential for cancer-initiated cells in mammary carcinomas to respond to metformin; (2) cell culture, to understand dose response (0.02--20 mM) of different cancer cell line molecular subtypes to metformin; and (3) analysis of a rat mammary epithelial cell microarray database, to examine expression of genes related to metformin pharmacokinetics (e.g., organic cation transporters) and pharmacodynamics (e.g., complex I of electron transport).
Results: While a dosing regimen of 1.0%/0.25% metformin-reduced palpable mammary carcinoma incidence, multiplicity, and tumor burden and prolonged latency, lower doses of metformin failed to inhibit carcinogenesis despite effects on plasma insulin. Human breast cancer cell growth inhibition in response to metformin was only observed at high concentrations. Poor in vivo and in vitro response to metformin may be the result of pharmacokinetic (OCT-1 expression was low in rat mammary cells; OCT-3 was downregulated in mammary carcinoma) and pharmacodynamic (complex I transcripts were higher in mammary epithelial cells from carcinomas versus uninvolved gland) effects. In combination with dietary energy restriction, metformin offered protection against new tumor occurrence following release from combined treatment. Flow cytometry indicated the presence of cancer-initiated cells in mammary carcinomas.
Conclusions: As a single agent, metformin possessed limited cancer inhibitory activity. However, metformin may be an effective component of multiagent interventions that target cancer-initiated cells. There is a clear need to identify the conditions under which metformin is likely to benefit prevention and control of breast cancer.
Keywords: AMP-activated protein kinase; insulin; mammalian target of rapamycin; mammary carcinogenesis; metformin.