Most-used diabetes drug works in different way than previously thought

January 06, 2013

PHILADELPHIA - A team, led by senior author Morris J. Birnbaum, MD, PhD, the Willard and Rhoda Ware Professor of Medicine, with the Institute for Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, found that the diabetes drug metformin works in a different way than previously understood. Their research in mice found that metformin suppresses the liver hormone glucagon's ability to generate an important signaling molecule, pointing to new drug targets. The findings were published online this week in Nature.

For fifty years, one of the few classes of therapeutics effective in reducing the overactive glucose production associated with diabetes has been the biguanides, which includes metformin, the most frequently prescribed drug for type 2 diabetes. The inability of insulin to keep liver glucose output in check is a major factor in the high blood sugar of type 2 diabetes and other diseases of insulin resistance.

"Overall, metformin lowers blood glucose by decreasing liver production of glucose," says Birnbaum. "But we didn't really know how the drug accomplished that."

Imperfectly Understood

Despite metformin's success, its mechanism of action remained imperfectly understood. About a decade ago, researchers suggested that metformin reduces glucose synthesis by activating the enzyme AMPK. But this understanding was challenged by genetic experiments in 2010 by collaborators on the present Nature study. Coauthors Marc Foretz and Benoit Viollet from Inserm, CNRS, and Université Paris Descartes, Paris, found that the livers of mice without AMPK still responded to metformin, indicating that blood glucose levels were being controlled outside of the AMPK pathway.

Taking another look at how glucose is regulated normally, the team knew that when there is no food intake and glucose decreases, glucagon is secreted from the pancreas to signal the liver to produce glucose. They then asked if metformin works by stopping the glucagon cascade.

The Nature study describes a novel mechanism by which metformin antagonizes the action of glucagon, thus reducing fasting glucose levels. The team showed that metformin leads to the accumulation of AMP in mice, which inhibits an enzyme called adenylate cyclase, thereby reducing levels of cyclic AMP and protein kinase activity, eventually blocking glucagon-dependent glucose output from liver cells.

From this new understanding of metformin's action, Birnbaum and colleagues surmise that adenylate cyclase could be a new drug target by mimicking the way in which it is inhibited by metformin. This strategy would bypass metformin's affect on a cell's mitochondria to make energy, and possibility avoid the adverse side effects experienced by many people who take metformin, perhaps even working for those patients resistant to metformin.
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Co-authors are Russell A. Miller and Qingwei Chu from Penn, and Jianxin Xie from Cell Signaling Technology, Mass.

This work was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (RO1 DK56886, PO1 DK49210, F32 DK079572); the Association pour l'Etude des Diabètes et des Maladies Métaboliques; the Programme National de Recherche sur le Diabète; and the Institut Benjamin Delessert.

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine is currently ranked #2 in U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $479.3 million awarded in the 2011 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Penn Medicine also includes additional patient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2011, Penn Medicine provided $854 million to benefit our community.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

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