Investigating metformin for cancer prevention and treatment: the end of the beginning

Cancer Discov. 2012 Sep;2(9):778-90. doi: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-12-0263. Epub 2012 Aug 27.


Laboratory research and pharmacoepidemiology are providing converging evidence that the widely used antidiabetic drug metformin has antineoplastic activity, but there are caveats. Although population studies suggest that metformin exposure is associated with reduced cancer risk and/or improved prognosis, these data are mostly retrospective and nonrandomized. Laboratory models show antineoplastic activity, but metformin concentrations used in many experiments exceed those achieved with conventional doses used for diabetes treatment. Ongoing translational research should be useful in guiding design of clinical trials, not only to evaluate metformin at conventional antidiabetic doses, where reduction of elevated insulin levels may contribute to antineoplastic activity for certain subsets of patients, but also to explore more aggressive dosing of biguanides, which may lead to reprogramming of energy metabolism in a manner that could provide important opportunities for synthetic lethality through rational drug combinations or in the context of genetic lesions associated with hypersensitivity to energetic stress.

Significance: There are tantalizing clues that justify the investigation of antineoplastic activities of biguanides. The complexity of their biologic effects requires further translational research to guide clinical trial design.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Metformin / therapeutic use*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Metformin