Metformin and the Promised Cure for Pancreatic Cancer



The American Cancer Society (ACS) projected the diagnosis of 43, 920 new cases of pancreatic cancer this year. ACS also expected pancreatic cancer to cause 37, 390 cases of death.

If we check the diagnosis statistics for other diseases like, say, diabetes or bladder cancer, the figure for pancreatic cancer seems to be not-so alarming.

And According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), there is a basis to that. Pancreatic cancer is not among the fastest growing debilitating diseases in the country. In fact, it accounts for only 3 percent of all the new cancer cases diagnosed yearly. However, when we introduce the death statistics to the comparison table, pancreatic cancer paints a different picture. It has now become a societal burden.

According to NCI, pancreatic cancer is the fourth topmost cause of cancer death among males and females in the country. It trumps bladder cancer in the death race by more than 150 percent. Thus, in 2009, NCI invested $89.7 million in pancreatic cancer research, a 311 percent jump from the Institute's allocation for research on the disease in 2001.

With this background in mind, I am somehow elated upon reading a news story published by on June 20, 2012 about the findings confirming the diabetes drug metformin's ability to destroy pancreatic cancer stem cells.

In a conference held in Lake Tahoe in Nevada, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) unveiled the progress made and challenges in pancreatic cancer research. The highlight of the conference was the results of some preclinical trials showing that low doses of metformin may effectively destroy cancer stem cells that are resistant to chemotherapies. The recent scientific discovery is something to be celebrated.

If metformin indeed can eradicate cancer stem cells and lessen pancreatic cancer death even by 10 percent, it will translate to 3, 739 lives snatched from death for this year. And who wouldn't like that? That possibility surely will give hope and, perhaps, be embraced by any American with family members suffering from pancreatic cancer. However, I also know that metformin carries risks from the most common to deadly, and this made me uneasy. I know for a fact that the diabetes drug carries a black box warning for lactic acidosis.

Boxed warning is the toughest caveat the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) merited to drugs proven to cause debilitating health condition.

Lactic acidosis is a condition typified by the excessive presence of lactic acid in the blood. This buildup of lactic acid in the blood is fatal because it leads to cellular suffocation. Added to this are diarrhea, bloating, chest pain, rash, non-cancerous polyps, heartburn and muscle pain.

The most that makes me uneasy is the current trend among diabetes drugs: for every promise of cure, there is this health risk that, sometimes, causes the already suffering patient worse side effects than the original disease.

I can only hope that this would not be the case for metformin. I am crossing my fingers.



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