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Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2018 Dec 17;9:753. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2018.00753. eCollection 2018.

Metformin-Induced Mitochondrial Complex I Inhibition: Facts, Uncertainties, and Consequences.

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1
INSERM, LBFA Université Grenoble Alpes, Grenoble, France.

Abstract

Metformin is the most widely prescribed drug to treat patients with type II diabetes, for whom retrospective studies suggest that metformin may have anticancer properties. However, in experiments performed with isolated cells, authors have reported both pro- and anti-apoptotic effects of metformin. The exact molecular mechanism of action of metformin remains partly unknown despite its use for over 60 years and more than 17,000 articles in PubMed. Among the various widely recognized or recently proposed targets, it has been reported consistently that metformin is capable of inhibiting mitochondrial respiratory chain Complex I. Since most of the effects of metformin have been replicated by other inhibitors of Complex I, it has been suggested that the mechanism of action of metformin involved the inhibition of Complex I. However, compared to conventional Complex I inhibitors, the metformin-induced inhibition of Complex I has unique characteristics. Among these, the most original one is that the concentrations of metformin required to inhibit Complex I are lower in intact cells than in isolated mitochondria. Experiments with isolated mitochondria or Complex I were generally performed using millimolar concentrations of metformin, while plasma levels remain in the micromolar range in both human and animal studies, highlighting that metformin concentration is an important issue. In order to explain the effects in animals based on observations in cells and mitochondria, some authors proposed a direct effect of the drug on Complex I involving an accumulation of metformin inside the mitochondria while others proposed an indirect effect (the drug no longer having to diffuse into the mitochondria). This brief review attempts to: gather arguments for and against each hypothesis concerning the mechanism by which metformin inhibits Complex I and to highlight remaining questions about the toxicity mechanism of metformin for certain cancer cells.

KEYWORDS:

Complex I; cancer; cell death; metformin; mitochondria; permeability transition; pharmacokinetic

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