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 beta-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.
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