New Cancer Treatment is Old Diabetes Drug

A diabetes pill approved in 1958 could be the latest cancer breakthrough, potentially offering protection against at least six common types of cancer—at a remarkably low price.

Metformin (Glucophage), an inexpensive medicine commonly used to lower blood sugar in type 2 diabetics, may very well be the next new treatment for breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer—and also shows promise for fighting oral, pancreatic, and liver cancer.

Metformin, which costs only 47 cents per pill, is being researched as a potential treatment in around 50 cancer studies around the world, according to Bloomberg News. Interest piqued once word got out that the medicine not only lowers blood sugar in people, but prevents cancer in animal studies. Furthermore, the drug appears to be associated with lower rates of cancer in diabetes patients.

Surprising Cancer Research

  • Metformin reduced overall cancer risk by 38 percent in people with type 2 diabetes as well, according to an analysis of seven studies including more than 30,000 patients. The types of cancer the drug offered some degree of protection against included colon and breast cancer, diseases for which diabetics typically have an increased risk.
  • A 2009 study conducted by the M.D. Anderson Center published in Gastroenterology also found a significant reduction in risk of pancreatic cancer for diabetic patients.
  • Middle-aged diabetic women who took the drug had slightly lower incidents of invasive breast cancer, according to a study published this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
  • Research published in PLoS One shows that metformin reduces the risk of breast cancer by preventing chemicals from stimulating the growth of cancer cells. Susan G. Komen for the Cure has spent around $10 million dollars investigating metformin, according to vice president of research, evaluations and scientific programs Chandini Porteus.

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A Cancer Weapon that Costs 47 Cents a Pill

A generic form of metformin can be found online for as low as 47 cents a pill. This stands in stark contrast to the average cost of a 30-day cancer treatment.

“Some of the new cancer treatments can cost as much as $10,000 for a month’s supply,” according to the American Cancer Society. WebMD estimates that some cancer treatments cost over $100,000.

“Newer, more targeted drug therapies, such as Dendreon Corp. (DNDN’s) $93,000-a-year Provenge for prostate cancer, may add only a few months of life,” according to Bloomberg.

Cancer treatment costs annually are currently over $124 billion dollars in the U.S. alone, according to the National Cancer Institute, are projected to rise to anywhere from $347 million to $28.3 billion per state by 2020, according to new research in The American Journal of Managed Care.

“Cheap and Safe”

“It is safe and cheap,” epidemiologist Donghui Li said of metformin to Bloomberg, adding that the drug both reduces risk and improves survival in pancreatic cancer patients in particular.

Although the drug is still in the study stage for cancer, if it turns out to have promising results in clinical trials, it could start being prescribed for other uses doctors find appropriate, including cancer treatment. (Metformin, which is FDA-approved as a diabetes treatment, is already prescribed off-label for polycystic ovary syndrome.)

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Animal Studies Promising

Metformin prevented liver cancer in mice, and mice that received the drug had 57 percent fewer liver tumors than the other mice. In addition, the size of tumors in the metformin-treated mice were 47 percent smaller.

A separate study looking at oral cancer in mice suggests that the diabetes drug might protect against that form of cancer as well.

But metformin has effects on more than just blood sugar and cancer. In fact, the drug actually encourages the growth of new neurons in the brain, a surprising study reported in Cell Stem Cell showed. Furthermore, these new neurons make mice smarter.

Metformin has been shown to have a protective effect on the heart of rats, limiting the loss of heart cells, increasing the capacity of the heart to pump blood, removing accumulated fat and showing other positive benefits.

How Does a Diabetes Drug Fight Cancer?

Endocrinologist and lead study author Diego Espinoza-Peralta, who is affiliated with Mexico’s National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition, believes that the drug protects against cancer because it regulates activity of a cell growth-suppressing enzyme.

University of Dundee biochemist Dario Alessi told Bloomberg that metformin may help control insulin levels by lowering blood glucose levels and increasing insulin sensitivity. Since insulin is associated with cell division and cancer, Alessi believes that metformin may trick cancer cells into thinking they don’t have enough energy to divide and grow.

Relatively Few Side Effects

The drug, metformin, which is also sold under the brand name Glucophage, has been used to both treat and prevent diabetes. Study participants taking the pill reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 31 percent.

Another benefit of metformin is the price tag. Because the original patent for the drug has expired, the average cost of generic metformin can be quite low.

Metformin is generally considered safe, though it can sometimes cause lactic acidosis, a potentially life-threatening side effect. For this reason, the drug is not typically prescribed to those suffering from kidney or liver disease.

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