Korean J Intern Med.  2021 Mar;36(Suppl 1):S196-S206. 10.3904/kjim.2019.336.

Metformin enhances the cytotoxic effect of nilotinib and overcomes nilotinib resistance in chronic myeloid leukemia cells

  • 1Brain Korea 21 Plus Program for Biomedicine Science, Korea University College of Medicine, Seoul, Korea
  • 2Division of Oncology and Hematology, Department of Internal Medicine, Korea University College of Medicine, Seoul, Korea


Nilotinib is used for treating patients with imatinib-sensitive or -resistant chronic myeloid leukemia (CML); however, nilotinib-resistant cases have been observed in recent years. In addition, a considerable number of patients receiving nilotinib developed diabetes. Metformin is a front-line drug for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and several studies have shown that diabetes patients treated with metformin have reduced incidence of cancer. This study aimed to define the effect of metformin on CML cells to determine whether metformin overcomes nilotinib resistance, and to identify novel targets for the treatment of nilotinib resistance. Methods: We observed the effects of metformin and nilotinib on K562 and KU812 human CML cell lines. Nilotinib-resistant CML cell lines were generated by exposing cells to gradually increasing doses of nilotinib. Then, we investigated the driving force that makes resistance to nilotinib and the effect of metformin on the driving force. Results: Sub-toxic doses of metformin enhanced nilotinib efficacy by reducing Bcl-xL expression, which induces apoptosis in CML cells. Next, we generated nilotinib-resistant K562 and KU812 cell lines that overexpressed the c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) gene. JNK silencing by a JNK inhibitor restored sensitivity to nilotinib. Furthermore, metformin was effective in decreasing phosphorylated JNK levels, restoring nilotinib sensitivity. Combined treatment with nilotinib and metformin was more effective than combined treatment with nilotinib and a JNK inhibitor in terms of cell proliferation inhibition. Conclusions: This study suggested that combination therapy with metformin and nilotinib may have clinical benefits of enhancing antileukemia efficacy and overcoming resistance to nilotinib.


Metformin; Nilotinib; Chronic myeloid leukemia; JNK; Bcl-xL
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