Metformin, now there’s a drug story for you. It’s a startlingly small molecule, the sort of thing that chemists look and and say “That’s a real drug?” It kicked around in the literature and the labs in the 1960s, was marketed in Europe in the 1980s but was shopped around in the US for quite a while, partly because a lot of people had just that reaction. (It didn't help that a couple of other drugs in the same structural class turned out to cause lactic acidosis and had to be pulled from use). Bristol-Myers Squibb finally took metformin up, though, and did extremely well with it in the end under the brand name Glucophage. It’s now generic, and continues to be widely prescribed for Type II diabetes.
But for many years, no one had a clue how it worked. It not only went all the way through clinical trials and FDA approval without a mechanism, it was nearly to the end of its patent lifetime before a plausible mechanism became clear. It’s now generally accepted that metformin is an activator (somehow, maybe through another enzyme called LKB1) of adenosine monophosphate kinase (AMPK), and that many (most?) of its effects are probably driven through that pathway. AMPK’s a central player in a lot of metabolic processes, so this proposal is certainly plausible.
But never think that you completely understand these things (and, as a corollary, never trust anyone who tries to convince you that they do). A new paper in PNAS advances the potentially alarming hypothesis that metformin may actually exacerbate the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. This hasn’t been proven in humans yet, but the evidence that the authors present makes a strong case that someone should check this out quickly.
There’s a strong connection between insulin, diabetes, and brain function. Actually, there are a lot of strong connections, and we definitely haven’t figured them all out yet. Some of them make immediate sense – the brain pretty much has to run on glucose, as opposed to the rest of the body, which can largely switch to fatty acids as an energy source if need be. So blood sugar regulation is a very large concern up there in the skull. But insulin has many, many more effects than its instant actions on glucose uptake. It’s also tied into powerful growth factor pathways, cell development, lifespan, and other things, so its interactions with brain function are surely rather tangled.
And there’s some sort of connection between diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Type II diabetes is considered to be a risk factor for AD, and there’s some evidence that insulin can improve cognition in patients with the disease. There’s also some evidence that the marketed PPAR-gamma drugs (the thiazolidinediones rosiglitazone and pioglitazone) have some benefit for patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s. (Nothing, as far as I’m aware, is of much benefit for people with late-stage Alzheimer’s). Just in the past month, more work has appeared in this area. The authors of this latest paper wanted to take a look at metformin from this angle, since it’s so widely used in the older diabetic population.
What came out was a surprise. In cell culture, metformin seems to increase the amount of beta-amyloid generated by neurons. If you buy into the beta-amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s, that’s very bad news indeed. (And even people that don’t think that amyloid is the proximate cause of the disease don’t think it’s good for you.) It seems to be doing this by upregulating beta-secretase (BACE), one of the key enzymes involved in producing beta-amyloid from the larger amyloid precursor protein (APP). And that upregulation seems to be driven by AMPK, but independent of glucose and insulin effects.
The paper takes this pretty thoroughly through cell culture models, and at the end all the way to live rats. They showed small but significant increases in beta-secretase activity in rat brain after six days of metformin treatment. And the authors conclude that:
Our finding that metformin increases A-beta generation and secretion raises the concern of potential side-effects, of accelerating AD clinical manifestation in patients with type 2 diabetes, especially in the aged population. This concern needs to be addressed by direct testing of the drug in animal models, in conjunction with learning, memory and behavioral tests.
Unfortunately, I think they’re quite right. Update - in response to questions, it appears that metformin may well cross into the brain, presumably at least partly by some sort of active transport. There's some evidence both ways, but it's certainly possible that relevant levels make it in. With any luck, this will be found not to translate to humans, or not with any real clinical effect, but someone’s going to have to make sure of that. For those of us back in the early stages of drug discovery, the lesson is (once again): never, never think we completely understand what a drug is doing. We don’t.