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Oncotarget. 2012 Apr;3(4):395-8.

Metformin-induced preferential killing of breast cancer initiating CD44+CD24-/low cells is sufficient to overcome primary resistance to trastuzumab in HER2+ human breast cancer xenografts.

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Translational Research Laboratory, Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO), Girona, Spain.


Trastuzumab-refractory breast cancer stem cells (CSCs) could also explain the high rate of primary resistance to single-agent trastuzumab in HER2 gene-amplified breast cancer patients. The identification of agents with strong selective toxicity for trastuzumab-resistant breast CSCs may have tremendous relevance for how HER2+ breast cancer patients should be treated. Using the human breast cancer cell line JIMT-1, which was established from the pleural metastasis of a patient who was clinically resistant to trastuzumab ab initio, we examined whether preferential killing of the putative CD44+CD24-/low breast CSC population might be sufficient to overcome primary resistance to trastuzumab in vivo. Because recent studies have shown that the anti-diabetic biguanide metformin can exert antitumor effects by targeted killing of CSC-like cells, we explored whether metformin's ability to preferentially kill breast cancer initiating CD44+CD24-/low cells may have the potential to sensitize JIMT-1 xenograft mouse models to trastuzumab. Upon isolation for breast cancer initiating CD44+CD24-/low cells by employing magnetic activated cell sorting, we observed the kinetics of metformin-induced killing drastically varied among CSC and non-CSC subpopulations. Metformin's cell killing effect increased dramatically by more than 10-fold in CD44+CD24-/low breast CSC cells compared to non-CD44+CD24-/low immunophenotypes. While seven-weeks treatment length with trastuzumab likewise failed to reduce tumor growth of JIMT-1 xenografts, systemic treatment with metformin as single agent resulted in a significant two-fold reduction in tumor volume. When trastuzumab was combined with concurrent metformin, tumor volume decreased sharply by more than four-fold. Given that metformin-induced preferential killing of breast cancer initiating CD44+CD24-/low subpopulations is sufficient to overcome in vivo primary resistance to trastuzumab, the incorporation of metformin into trastuzumab-based regimens may provide a valuable strategy for treatment of HER2+ breast cancer patients.

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