Metformin, a biguanide derivate, has pleiotropic effects beyond glucose reduction, including improvement of lipid profiles and lowering microvascular and macrovascular complications associated with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). These effects have been ascribed to adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) activation in the liver and skeletal muscle. However, metformin effects are not attenuated when AMPK is knocked out and intravenous metformin is less effective than oral medication, raising the possibility of important gut pharmacology. We hypothesized that the pharmacology of metformin includes alteration of bile acid recirculation and gut microbiota resulting in enhanced enteroendocrine hormone secretion. In this study we evaluated T2DM subjects on and off metformin monotherapy to characterize the gut-based mechanisms of metformin. Subjects were studied at 4 time points: (i) at baseline on metformin, (ii) 7 days after stopping metformin, (iii) when fasting blood glucose (FBG) had risen by 25% after stopping metformin, and (iv) when FBG returned to baseline levels after restarting the metformin. At these timepoints we profiled glucose, insulin, gut hormones (glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), peptide tyrosine-tyrosine (PYY) and glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (GIP) and bile acids in blood, as well as duodenal and faecal bile acids and gut microbiota. We found that metformin withdrawal was associated with a reduction of active and total GLP-1 and elevation of serum bile acids, especially cholic acid and its conjugates. These effects reversed when metformin was restarted. Effects on circulating PYY were more modest, while GIP changes were negligible. Microbiota abundance of the phylum Firmicutes was positively correlated with changes in cholic acid and conjugates, while Bacteroidetes abundance was negatively correlated. Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes representation were also correlated with levels of serum PYY. Our study suggests that metformin has complex effects due to gut-based pharmacology which might provide insights into novel therapeutic approaches to treat T2DM and associated metabolic diseases.
Trial registration: www.ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01357876.