This common diabetes drug has surprising effects for healthy aging

Metformin is the most commonly prescribed type 2 diabetes drug, yet scientists still do not fully know how it works to control blood sugar levels.

In a new study, researchers have used novel technology to investigate why it functions so well.

They identified a surprising number of biochemical “switches” for various cellular processes, could also explain why metformin has been shown to extend healthspan and life span in recent studies.

The research was conducted by a team from the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, and Weill Cornell Medical College.

Previously, the only biochemical pathway that was known to be activated by metformin was the AMPK pathway, which stalls cell growth and changes metabolism when nutrients are scarce, as can occur in cancer.

But the scientists believed more pathways than AMPK might be involved.

In the study, the scientists developed a novel screening platform to examine kinases, the proteins that transfer phosphate groups, which are critical on/off switches in cells and can be rapidly flipped by metformin.

Using this technology, they were able to decode hundreds of regulatory “switch-flipping” events that could affect healthy aging.

The results showed that metformin turns on unexpected kinases and pathways, many independent of AMPK. Two of the activated kinases are called Protein Kinase D and MAPKAPK2.

These kinases are poorly understood, but are known to have some relation to cellular stress, which could connect them to the health-span- and lifespan-extending effects observed in other studies.

In fact, metformin is currently being tested in multiple large-scale clinical trials as a health-span- and life-span-extending drug, but the mechanism for how metformin could affect health and aging has not been clear.

The current study indicates that Protein Kinase D and MAPKAPK2 maybe two players in providing these therapeutic effects.

It also shows that new targets and cellular processes regulated by AMPK that may also be critical to metformin’s beneficial effects.

The team says the findings broaden the understanding of how metformin induces mild stress that triggers sensors to restore metabolic balance, explaining some of the benefits previously reported such as extended healthy aging in model organisms taking metformin.

The big questions now are what targets of metformin can benefit the health of all individuals, not just type 2 diabetics.

The lead author of the study is Ben Stein, a postdoctoral associate at Weill Cornell Medical College.

The study is published in Cell Reports.

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