Metformin is synthetically lethal with glucose withdrawal in cancer cells

Cell Cycle. 2012 Aug 1;11(15):2782-92. doi: 10.4161/cc.20948. Epub  2012 Aug 1.
Metformin is synthetically lethal with glucose withdrawal in cancer cells.
Menendez JA1, Oliveras-Ferraros C, Cufí S, Corominas-Faja B, Joven J, Martin-Castillo B, Vazquez-Martin A.

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1Translational Research Laboratory, Catalan Institute of Oncology, Girona, Catalonia, Spain.


Glucose deprivation is a distinctive feature of the tumor microecosystem caused by the imbalance between poor supply and an extraordinarily high consumption rate. The metabolic reprogramming from mitochondrial respiration to aerobic glycolysis in cancer cells (the “Warburg effect”) is linked to oncogenic transformation in a manner that frequently implies the inactivation of metabolic checkpoints such as the energy rheostat AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). Because the concept of synthetic lethality in oncology can be applied not only to genetic and epigenetic intrinsic differences between normal and cancer cells but also to extrinsic ones such as altered microenvironment, we recently hypothesized that stress-energy mimickers such as the AMPK agonist metformin should produce metabolic synthetic lethality in a glucose-starved cell culture milieu imitating the adverse tumor growth conditions in vivo. Under standard high-glucose conditions, metformin supplementation mostly caused cell cycle arrest without signs of apoptotic cell death. Under glucose withdrawal stress, metformin supplementation circumvented the ability of oncogenes (e.g., HER2) to protect breast cancer cells from glucose-deprivation apoptosis. Significantly, representative cell models of breast cancer heterogeneity underwent massive apoptosis (by >90% in some cases) when glucose-starved cell cultures were supplemented with metformin. Our current findings may uncover crucial issues regarding the cell-autonomous metformin’s anti-cancer actions: (1) The offently claimed clinically irrelevant, non-physiological concentrations needed to observe the metformin’s anti-cancer effects in vitro merely underlie the artifactual interference of erroneous glucose-rich experimental conditions that poorly reflect glucose-starved in vivo conditions; (2) the preferential killing of cancer stem cells (CSC) by metformin may simply expose the best-case scenario for its synthetically lethal activity because an increased dependency on Warburg-like aerobic glycolysis (hyperglycolytic phenotype) is critical to sustain CSC stemness and immortality; (3) the microenvironment-mediated contextual synthetic lethality of metformin should be expected to enormously potentiate the anti-cancer effect of anti-angiogenesis agents that promote severe oxygen and glucose deprivation in certain areas of the tumor tissues.

Comment in

Metformin is synthetically lethal with glucose withdrawal in cancer cells. [Cell Cycle.  2012]
“Double hit” makes the difference. [Cell Cycle.  2012]



[PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]