Metformin rescues cell surface major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) deficiency caused by oncogenic transformation

Cell Cycle. 2012 Mar 1;11(5):865-70. doi: 10.4161/cc.11.5.19252. Epub 2012 Mar 1.


Active avoidance by tumor cells from attack and elimination by immune cells is an emerging cancer hallmark that is achieved primarily through decreasing the levels of major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) at the cancer cells' surface. Deficiencies in MHC-I antigen-restricted immunosurveillance may be intertwined with an altered, Warburg-like cancer cell-intrinsic metabolism, another emerging hallmark of cancer that involves a switch from mitochondrial respiration to glycolysis to efficiently support large-scale biosynthetic programs that are required for active cell proliferation. We recently envisioned that intervention strategies aimed at reversing the bioenergetic signature of cancer cells (e.g., the antidiabetic biguanide metformin) should correct oncogene (e.g., HER2)-driven MHC-I defects, thus preventing immune escape of oncogene transformants. First, we explored how metformin treatment impacted mitochondrial biogenesis in cultured breast cancer cells overexpressing the membrane tyrosine kinase receptor HER2, the best-characterized downregulator of MHC-I. Metformin exposure was found to dose-dependently increase the expression levels of cytochrome c oxidase I and mitochondrial succinate dehydrogenase, which are encoded by mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, respectively. Second, we explored whether metformin-enhanced mitochondrial biogenesis might significantly alter the MHC-I status in breast carcinoma cells. MHC-I expression, as assessed by flow cytometry using an anti-HLA-ABC monoclonal antibody, was fully restored (up to ~25-fold upregulation) in MHC-I-negative HER2 gene-amplified carcinoma cells. These findings may help delineate a previously unrecognized mechanism through which metformin (and metformin-like drugs) may enable a cancer patient's own immune system to mount an efficient anti-metastasis response that can prevent or delay disease recurrence. Restored antigenicity and immunogenicity of tumor cells may represent a previously unrecognized primary mode of action underlying the cancer-preventive effects of metformin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / immunology
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Electron Transport Complex IV / metabolism
  • Female
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / genetics
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / pharmacology*
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Metformin / pharmacology*
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Mitochondrial Turnover / drug effects
  • Monitoring, Immunologic
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism
  • Succinate Dehydrogenase / metabolism


  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I
  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Metformin
  • Succinate Dehydrogenase
  • Electron Transport Complex IV
  • Receptor, ErbB-2