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Systemic Treatment with the Antidiabetic Drug Metformin Selectively Impairs p53-Deficient Tumor Cell Growth

The effect of the antidiabetic drug metformin on tumor growth was investigated using the paired isogenic colon cancer cell lines HCT116 p53+/+ and HCT116 p53−/−. Treatment with metformin selectively suppressed the tumor growth of HCT116 p53−/− xenografts. Following treatment with metformin, we detected increased apoptosis in p53−/− tumor sections and an enhanced susceptibility of p53−/− cells to undergo apoptosis in vitro when subject to nutrient deprivation. Metformin is proposed to function in diabetes treatment as an indirect activator of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). Treatment with AICAR, another AMPK activator, also showed a selective ability to inhibit p53−/− tumor growth in vivo. In the presence of either of the two drugs, HCT116 p53+/+ cells, but not HCT116 p53−/− cells, activated autophagy. A similar p53-dependent induction of autophagy was observed when nontransformed mouse embryo fibroblasts were treated. Treatment with either metformin or AICAR also led to enhanced fatty acid β-oxidation in p53+/+ MEFs, but not in p53−/− MEFs. However, the magnitude of induction was significantly lower in metformin-treated cells, as metformin treatment also suppressed mitochondrial electron transport. Metformin-treated cells compensated for this suppression of oxidative phosphorylation by increasing their rate of glycolysis in a p53-dependent manner. Together, these data suggest that metformin treatment forces a metabolic conversion that p53−/− cells are unable to execute. Thus, metformin is selectively toxic to p53-deficient cells and provides a potential mechanism for the reduced incidence of tumors observed in patients being treated with metformin. [Cancer Res 2007;67(14):6745–52]