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Diabetes drug may aid cancer therapies, study finds


NEW YORK Researchers at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that a widely used anti-diabetic drug can boost the immune system and increase the potency of vaccines and cancer treatments. Their findings were published June 3 in the journal Nature.

The discovery was made by Russell Jones, an assistant professor at McGill's Goodman Cancer Centre and the Department of Physiology, faculty of medicine; Yongwon Choi, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and postdoctoral fellow Erika Pearce, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers discovered that the widely prescribed diabetes treatment metformin increases the efficiency of the immune system's T-cells, which in turn makes cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more effective. In diabetics, metformin works by stimulating AMP-activated protein kinase or AMPK, a master circuit for energy metabolism in the body.

T-cells remember pathogens they have encountered from previous infections or vaccinations, enabling them to fight subsequent infections much faster. Now, the researchers said, they can use diabetic therapies to manipulate T-cell response and enhance the immune system's response to infections and cancer alike.

"Many genes involved in diabetes regulation also play a role in cancer progression," Jones explained. "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."

The recent findings suggest a new link between the metabolic pathways deregulated in cancer and diabetes and their role in immune cell function. The results suggest that common diabetic therapies which alter cellular metabolism may enhance T-cell memory, providing a boost to the immune system. This could lead to novel strategies for vaccine and anti-cancer therapies.

"Our findings were unanticipated, but are potentially extremely important and could revolutionize current strategies for both therapeutic and protective vaccines," Choi said.

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