Glucose promotes breast cancer aggression and reduces metformin efficacy

Cell Cycle. 2013 Dec 15;12(24):3759-69. doi: 10.4161/cc.26641. Epub 2013 Oct 3.


Metformin treatment has been associated with a decrease in breast cancer risk and improved survival. Metformin induces complex cellular changes, resulting in decreased tumor cell proliferation, reduction of stem cells, and apoptosis. Using a carcinogen-induced rodent model of mammary tumorigenesis, we recently demonstrated that overfeeding in obese animals is associated with a 50% increase in tumor glucose uptake, increased proliferation, and tumor cell reprogramming to an "aggressive" metabolic state. Metformin significantly inhibited these pro-tumorigenic effects. We hypothesized that a dynamic relationship exists between chronic energy excess (glucose by dose) and metformin efficacy/action. Media glucose concentrations above 5 mmol/L was associated with significant increase in breast cancer cell proliferation, clonogenicity, motility, upregulation/activation of pro-oncogenic signaling, and reduction in apoptosis. These effects were most significant in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) cell lines. High-glucose conditions (10 mmol/L or above) significantly abrogated the effects of metformin. Mechanisms of metformin action at normal vs. high glucose overlapped but were not identical; for example, metformin reduced IGF-1R expression in both the HER2+ SK-BR-3 and TNBC MDA-MB-468 cell lines more significantly at 5, as compared with 10 mmol/L glucose. Significant changes in gene profiles related to apoptosis, cellular processes, metabolic processes, and cell proliferation occurred with metformin treatment in cells grown at 5 mmol/L glucose, whereas under high-glucose conditions, metformin did not significantly increase apoptotic/cellular death genes. These data indicate that failure to maintain glucose homeostasis may promote a more aggressive breast cancer phenotype and alter metformin efficacy and mechanisms of action.

Keywords: breast cancer; glucose; metabolism; metformin; therapy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor / drug effects
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects*
  • Female
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Glucose / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Metformin / pharmacology*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Metformin
  • Glucose