Anti-diabetic to Revolutionize Cancer Therapies Thanks to Unexpected T-cell Breakthrough

June 3, 2009

The widely used anti-diabetic metformin increases T-cell efficiency, thus making cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more potent and effective.

According to McGill University and University of Pennsylvania researchers, who published their study results recently in Nature, the widely used anti-diabetic metformin increases T-cell efficiency, thus making cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more potent and effective.

"Many genes involved in diabetes regulation also play a role in cancer progression," explained Russell Jones, PhD, assistant professor, Goodman Cancer Centre and Department of Physiology, and faculty of Medicine, McGill. "There is also a significant body of data suggesting that diabetics are more prone to certain cancers. However, our study is the first to suggest that by targeting the same metabolic pathways that play a role in diabetes, you can alter how well your immune system functions."

Adding to his colleague’s sentiments, Erika Pearce, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, University of Pennsylvania, said. “We serendipitously discovered that the metabolizing, or burning, of fatty acids by T-cells following the peak of infection is critical to establishing immunological memory. We used metformin, which is known to operate on fatty-acid metabolism, to enhance this process, and have shown experimentally in mice that metformin increases T-cell memory as well as the ensuing protective immunity of an experimental anti-cancer vaccine.”

Though cancer and diabetes are rarely discussed or reported on in unison, common links between the two diseases have been determined recently, particularly in the area of metabolic pathways. The current study findings “suggest that common diabetic therapies which alter cellular metabolism may enhance T-cell memory, providing a boost to the immune system.”

"Our findings were unanticipated, but are potentially extremely important and could revolutionize current strategies for both therapeutic and protective vaccines," said Yongwon Choi, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, University of Pennsylvania.

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