Metformin (dimethylbiguanide) has become the preferred first-line oral blood glucose-lowering agent to manage type 2 diabetes. Its history is linked to Galega officinalis (also known as goat's rue), a traditional herbal medicine in Europe, found to be rich in guanidine, which, in 1918, was shown to lower blood glucose. Guanidine derivatives, including metformin, were synthesised and some (not metformin) were used to treat diabetes in the 1920s and 1930s but were discontinued due to toxicity and the increased availability of insulin. Metformin was rediscovered in the search for antimalarial agents in the 1940s and, during clinical tests, proved useful to treat influenza when it sometimes lowered blood glucose. This property was pursued by the French physician Jean Sterne, who first reported the use of metformin to treat diabetes in 1957. However, metformin received limited attention as it was less potent than other glucose-lowering biguanides (phenformin and buformin), which were generally discontinued in the late 1970s due to high risk of lactic acidosis. Metformin's future was precarious, its reputation tarnished by association with other biguanides despite evident differences. The ability of metformin to counter insulin resistance and address adult-onset hyperglycaemia without weight gain or increased risk of hypoglycaemia gradually gathered credence in Europe, and after intensive scrutiny metformin was introduced into the USA in 1995. Long-term cardiovascular benefits of metformin were identified by the UK Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS) in 1998, providing a new rationale to adopt metformin as initial therapy to manage hyperglycaemia in type 2 diabetes. Sixty years after its introduction in diabetes treatment, metformin has become the most prescribed glucose-lowering medicine worldwide with the potential for further therapeutic applications.
Keywords: Biguanide; Dimethylbiguanide; Galega officinalis; Guanidine; History; Jean Sterne; Metformin; Review; Type 2 diabetes.