Pancreatic islet desensitization by high glucose concentrations is a temporary and reversible state of beta-cell refractoriness to glucose (and possibly other secretagogues), due to repeated or prolonged pre-exposure to increased glucose concentrations. We evaluated whether the oral antidiabetic agent metformin affects this phenomenon in isolated, human pancreatic islets, and whether the possible effects of the biguanide are influenced by the presence of a sulphonylurea, glyburide. Islets prepared from five human pancreases were incubated for 24 h in M199 culture medium containing either 5.5 or 22.2 mmol/l glucose, with or without a therapeutic concentration (2.4 microg/ml) of metformin. Then, the islets were challenged with either 3.3 mmol/l glucose, 16.7 mmol/l glucose, or 3.3 mmol/l glucose + 10 mmol/l arginine, and insulin release was measured. After incubation in the absence of metformin, the human islets exposed to 22.2 mmol/l glucose showed no significant increase in insulin release when challenged with 16.7 mmol/l glucose (confirming that hyperglycemia desensitizes pancreatic beta-cells). In the presence of metformin, the islets fully maintained the ability to significantly increase their insulin release in response to glucose, even when previously exposed to 22.2 mmol/l glucose. No major effect on arginine-induced insulin release was observed, whatever the culture conditions. The protective action of metformin was observed also when glyburide was present in the incubation medium, whereas the sulphonylurea alone did not affect insulin release from the islets previously exposed to high glucose concentrations. These in vitro results suggest that metformin can prevent the desensitization of human pancreatic islets induced by prolonged exposure to increased glucose concentrations.