Diabetes, cancer, and metformin: connections of metabolism and cell proliferation

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 Dec;1243:54-68. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06285.x.


Diabetes is associated with an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer. This increased risk may be due to hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, and insulin resistance or other factors. Metformin has recently gained much attention as it appears to reduce cancer incidence and improve prognosis of patients with diabetes. In vitro data and animal studies support these findings from human epidemiological studies. Metformin has multiple potential mechanisms by which it inhibits cancer development and growth. For example, metaformin inhibits hepatic gluconeogenesis, thus decreasing circulating glucose levels, and it increases insulin sensitivity, thus reducing circulating insulin levels. Intracellularly, metformin activates AMPK, which decreases protein synthesis and cell proliferation. Metaformin also reduces aromatase activity in the stromal cells of the mammary gland. Finally, metformin may diminish the recurrence and aggressiveness of tumors by reducing the stem cell population and inhibiting epithelial to mesenchymal transition. Here, we discuss the metabolic abnormalities that occur in tumor development and some of the mechanisms through which metformin may alter these pathways and reduce tumor growth.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Caloric Restriction
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Diabetes Complications / metabolism*
  • Diabetes Complications / pathology
  • Diabetes Complications / prevention & control*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / drug therapy
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperglycemia / complications
  • Hyperglycemia / metabolism
  • Hyperinsulinism / complications
  • Hyperinsulinism / metabolism
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Male
  • Metformin / pharmacology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Risk Factors
  • Signal Transduction


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens
  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Metformin