Penn Team Finds that Most-Used Diabetes Drug Works in Different Way than Previously Thought

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Media Contact:Karen Kreeger | Karen.kreeger@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-349-5658January 7, 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.

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