BACKGROUND: Metformin slows tumor growth and progression in vitro, and in combination with chemoradiotherapy, resulted in high overall survival in patients with head and neck cancer squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) in our phase 1 clinical trial (NCT02325401). Metformin is also postulated to activate an antitumor immune response. Here, we investigate immunologic effects of metformin on natural killer (NK) and natural killer T cells, including results from two phase I open-label studies in patients with HNSCC treated with metformin (NCT02325401, NCT02083692).
METHODS: Peripheral blood was collected before and after metformin treatment or from newly diagnosed patients with HNSCC. Peripheral immune cell phenotypes were evaluated using flow cytometry, cytokine expression by ELISA and/or IsoLight, and NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity was determined with a flow-based NK cell cytotoxicity assay (NKCA). Patient tumor immune infiltration before and after metformin treatment was analyzed with immunofluorescence. NK cells were treated with either vehicle or metformin and analyzed by RNA sequencing (RNA-seq). NK cells were then treated with inhibitors of significant pathways determined by RNA-seq and analyzed by NKCA, ELISA, and western blot analyses.
RESULTS: Increased peripheral NK cell activated populations were observed in patients treated with metformin. NK cell tumor infiltration was enhanced in patients with HNSCC treated with metformin preoperatively. Metformin increased antitumorigenic cytokines ex vivo, including significant increases in perforin. Metformin increased HNSCC NK cell cytotoxicity and inhibited the CXCL1 pathway while stimulating the STAT1 pathway within HNSCC NK cells. Exogenous CXCL1 prevented metformin-enhanced NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity. Metformin-mediated NK cell cytotoxicity was found to be AMP-activated protein kinase independent, but dependent on both mechanistic target of rapamycin and pSTAT1.
CONCLUSIONS: Our data identifies a new role for metformin-mediated immune antitumorigenic function through NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity and downregulation of CXCL1 in HNSCC. These findings will inform future immunomodulating therapies in HNSCC.
Crist, McKenzie; Yaniv, Benyamin; Palackdharry, Sarah; Lehn, Maria A.; Medvedovic, Mario; Stone, Timothy; Gulati, Shuchi; Karivedu, Vidhya; Borchers, Michael; Fuhrman, Bethany; Crago, Audrey; Curry, Joseph; Martinez-Outschoorn, Ubaldo; Takiar, Vinita; and Wise-Draper, Trisha M., "Metformin Increases Natural Killer Cell Functions in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma Through CXCL1 Inhibition" (2022). Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery Faculty Papers. Paper 65.
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