New perspective for an old antidiabetic drug: metformin as anticancer agent

Cancer Treat Res. 2014;159:355-76. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-38007-5_21.


Metformin, an inexpensive, well-tolerated oral agent that is commonly used in the first-line treatment for type 2 diabetes, has become the focus of intense research as a potential anticancer agent. This research reflects a convergence of epidemiologic, clinical, and preclinical evidence, suggesting that metformin may lower cancer risk in diabetics and improve outcomes of many common cancers. Notably, metformin mediates an approximately 30 % reduction in the lifetime risk of cancer in diabetic patients. There is growing recognition that metformin may act (1) directly on cancer cells, primarily by impacting mitochondrial respiration leading to the activation of the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which controls energy homeostasis in cells, but also through other mechanisms or (2) indirectly on the host metabolism, largely through AMPK-mediated reduction in hepatic gluconeogenesis, leading to reduced circulating insulin levels and decreased insulin/IGF-1 receptor-mediated activation of the PI3K pathway. Support for this comes from the observation that metformin inhibits cancer cell growth in vitro and delays the onset of tobacco carcinogen-induced lung cancer in mice and that metformin and its analog phenformin delay spontaneous tumor development cancer-prone transgenic mice. The potential for both direct antitumor effects and indirect host-mediated effects has sparked enormous interest, but has led to added challenges in translating preclinical findings to the clinical setting. Nonetheless, the accumulation of evidence has been sufficient to justify initiation of clinical trials of metformin as an anticancer agent in the clinical setting, including a large-scale adjuvant study in breast cancer, with additional studies planned.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Metformin / therapeutic use*
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Metformin