Over the last decade, evidence has emerged to support a role for the antidiabetic drug metformin in the prevention and treatment of cancer. In particular, recent studies demonstrate that metformin enhances tumor response to radiation in experimental models, and retrospective analyses have shown that diabetic cancer patients treated with radiation therapy have improved outcomes if they take metformin to control their diabetes. Metformin may therefore be of utility for nondiabetic cancer patients treated with radiation therapy. The purpose of this review is to examine the data pertaining to an interaction between metformin and radiation, highlighting the essential steps needed to advance our current knowledge. There is also a focus on key biomarkers that should accompany prospective clinical trials in which metformin is being examined as a modifying agent with radiation therapy. Existing evidence supports that the mechanism underlying the ability of metformin to enhance radiation response is multifaceted, and includes direct radiosensitization as well as a reduction in tumor stem cell fraction, proliferation, and tumor hypoxia. Interestingly, metformin may enhance radiation response specifically in certain genetic backgrounds, such as in cells with loss of the tumor suppressors p53 and LKB1, giving rise to a therapeutic ratio and potential predictive biomarkers.
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