Monday, November 24, 2008
Metformin (brand name Glucophage) is a member of the class of antidiabetic drugs called biguanides. Unlike the sulfonylureas such as glipizide, metformin does not decrease blood glucose by increasing the plasma concentration of insulin. Instead it works in several other ways to accomplish its purpose.
Metformin exerts its main effect, suppression of gluconeogenesis, by inhibiting the ATP production of the mitochondrial respiratory chain. Mitochondria are little organelles inside most of the cells of our bodies. Their job? To convert the precursor molecule ADP (adenosine diphosphate), into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule that is used to provide the energy required for many metabolic processes. Our bodies produce a little ATP by breaking down glucose in a process called glycolysis. But most of our ATP is provided when two-carbon units enter the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle and are burned in the mitochondrial respiratory chain to produce carbon dioxide and water. From that link, here is a pictorial representation of the mitochondrial respiratory chain.
When metformin interferes with the conversion of ADP to ATP, the ratio of ATP to ADP decreases. When this ratio decreases, there is a resultant decrease in the activity of pyruvate carboxylase, which is the first enzyme used in the process of gluconeogenesis. The inhibition of pyruvate carboxylase significantly decreases the amount of gluconeogenesis the liver can perform. As we have seen previously, when the liver becomes insulin resistant, it will raise blood glucose by continuing to do gluconeogenesis even when blood sugar levels are normal. Although metformin does nothing directly to reverse insulin resistance in the liver, it is able to use the complex series of events beginning with the inhibition of ATP production in mitochondria to partially block the synthesis of excess glucose by the liver.
(As an aside, the inhibition of gluconeogenesis may cause an increase of lactic acid in the blood, lactic acid being one of the building blocks used for gluconeogenesis. In extreme cases this can lead to lactic acidosis, but the phenomenon is relatively rare with metformin.)
The second major effect of metformin is that it is able to decrease blood glucose by improving glucose uptake in muscle cells. Glucose cannot pass into muscle cells simply by diffusion; it requires specfic transport proteins to carry it into the cell. Studies have shown that metformin increases the number of the glucose transporters GLUT1 and GLUT4 in the plasma membrane of muscle cells. More glucose transport proteins means more glucose can be moved into insulin-resistant muscle cells, which in turn lowers blood glucose.
Although metformin has several other actions that reduce blood glucose, these two are the major ones. Unlike injected insulin, or oral drugs that increase insulin secretion, metformin does not cause an increase in insulin resistance, nor does it cause weight gain. However, it is important to note that metformin does not reverse insulin resistance. It simply acts to lower blood glucose in a non-insulin dependent manner.