Science Daily: Diabetes Drug Kills Cancer Stem Cells in Combination Treatment in Mice.
It's well known that people with diabetes have a higher risk of cancer. In some cases, undetected cancer may be causing the diabetes--diabetes is, rarely, an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. In others the many years of exposure to high blood sugar may feed baby cancer cells which do not apparently need insulin to be able to take in and metabolize glucose.
Until now, all we could advise people with family histories of diabetes to do, to prevent or slow cancer, was to strive for early diabetes or pre-diabetes diagnosis and to lower blood sugars aggressively once abnormal blood sugars were found.
Now new data from a British epidemiological study suggests that metformin may exert an anti-cancer effect. The study is:
New Users of Metformin Are at Low Risk of Incident Cancer: A cohort study among people with type 2 diabetes. Gillian Libby et al. Diabetes Care September 2009 vol. 32 no. 9 1620-1625.doi: 10.2337/dc08-2175
The study made use of medical records collected in Tayside, Scotland UK. The researchers compared 4085 people with type 2 diabetes who were new users of metformin in 1994–2003 to a group of people with diabetes diagnosed the same year who were not given metformin.
The result was that
Cancer was diagnosed among 7.3% of 4,085 metformin users compared with 11.6% of 4,085 comparators, with median times to cancer of 3.5 and 2.6 years, respectively (P < 0.001). The unadjusted hazard ratio (95% CI) for cancer was 0.46 (0.40–0.53).This association held up even when adjusted for "sex, age, BMI, A1C, deprivation, smoking, and other drug use."
This result is intriguing, though it makes me want to ask, "What kept the doctors from prescribing metformin to the second group, the one that had so much more cancer?" Until we know the answer to that question, it is impossible to screen out the possibility that the same factor that kept doctors from prescribing the usual first line treatment for Type 2 diabetes might have also promoted cancer.
Doctors often avoided prescribing metformin to newly diagnosed patients if those patients' A1cs are between 7-8%--a level that correlates with very damaging post-meal blood sugars--high enough,perhaps, to actively promote tumor growh. That is because doctors erroneously believe an A1c near 8% to be close enough to "good control" (which they define as an A1c of 7%) that it can be managed with "diet and exercise." The diet prescribed in the UK, however, is a low fat diet full of carbohydrates which tends to push blood sugars up. So patients managed only on diet and exercise are likely to have blood sugars spiking into the very high range after every meal.
The results in this study were supposedly analyzed to adjust for A1c--but we know that the identical A1c can represent very different peak blood sugars and very different lengths of time of exposure to those peak blood sugars.
This was demonstrated very clearly in the Kumamoto study where patients with the identical 7% A1c to the patients in the UKPDS study had far fewer diabetic complications than their peers in the UKPDS study because they used fast-acting insulin to cap their post-meal blood sugar excursions to 180 mg/dl. In the UKPDS post meal sugars were not monitored and though the patients achieved the same 7% A1c as the Kumomoto study participants, they did so with much higher post-meal numbers. (Citations to these studies can be found HERE.)
Because of this, it is not possible to adequately adjust for blood sugar status, simply by adjusting for A1c. This means it is impossible to rule out the possibility that the Metformin group in the cancer study may have been prescribed metformin because their initially higher blood sugars impelled doctors to give them more aggressive treatment which meant, long term, they had less exposure to very high blood sugars and hence, less glucose feeding their baby cancers.
It is also possible the people in the no-metformin group were sicker. Doctors won't prescribe metformin to people who show evidence of significant kidney damage or liver disease. In that case, their higher rate of cancer might be related to their other health problems. Or the kidney damage that made metformin inappropriate might have been caused by years of undiagnosed diabetes and hence much more opportunity to feed glucose to baby tumors.
But we should not dismiss the possibility that metformin really does exert a protective effect.
Whatever the answer, it should be one more bit of data that supports the idea that, if you can take it, metformin is the very best diabetic drug to take.
Another piece of research that also supports the use of metformin is the finding, also reported in this month that liver fat not, as we have been told for years, visceral fat, appears to be the culprit in the metabolic disorders associated with obesity.
Intrahepatic fat, not visceral fat, is linked with metabolic complications of obesity. Elisa Fabbrini et al. PNAS Published online before print August 24, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0904944106
The abstract of the above study is pretty tough going. Fortunately, you can read a clearer explanation of what this study found in this report in Diabetes in Control
Diabetes in Control:Liver Fat Has Greater Impact on Health than Abdominal Fat
The lead researcher in that study was quoted as saying, ""We have found that excess fat in the liver, not visceral fat, is a key marker of metabolic dysfunction." The metabolic dysfunction in question was insulin resistance and the secretion rate of very low density triglycerides--the cholesterol fraction most associated with clogged arteries.
Why, you might ask, am I linking this second study with metformin? Because there is some interesting animal research that suggests that metformin may reduce liver fat. This research has not yet been repeated in humans, though it has been found that metformin improves liver enzymes.
One recent six month long Norwegian study failed to find evidence that metformin reduced liver fat. However, I can't help but wonder if the problem in repeating the animal result might not have something to do with the stress of the very high carbohydrate diets eaten by the human subjects here. We know the medical establishment still believes, in the face of a lot of data, that a low fat diet will lower body fat levels--even though we know to the contrary that high carbohydrate levels raise triglycerides, the basic building block of fats. Metformin lowers triglycerides, and did so in this study, but it is possible it can't lower them enough in the face of the on onslaught of 300 grams a day of carbohydrate.
This makes me wonder if combining metformin with a low carb diet in a manner that produces a normal level of triglycerides--one well under 150 mg/dl, may produce the same effect in humans as has been seen in animal studies where metformin did reduce the liver fat burden.
It's worth a try, especially as there is no negative finding in the study of people taking metformin who have high levels of liver fat. It lowered their triglycerides, blood sugar, and body fat, significantly, and there is no evidence the metformin made the condition worse.
If you decide to try metformin, take it in its cheap, generic form. Many pharmacies will sell it to you for $4-8 a month. Don't take your metformin mixed into a $4/a day pill that also includes another newer drug whose safety profile is a) already known to be dangerous (Actos or Avandia) or b)Unknown but already showing areas of concern (Januvia or Onglyza).
The extended release form (Metformin ER or XR) is easier on the digestive tract.
If you have been diagnosed with Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) and have been taking metformin in association with a lowered carbohydrate intake, let me hear from you about your experience.