Diabetes Drug Linked to Increased Pancreatic Cancer Risk

(February 17, 2012)  According to new research published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, long-term use of the diabetes drug metformin has been associated with a lower risk of pancreatic cancer—but only in women. The study carried out by the University of Basel in Switzerland found that other diabetes drugs were associated with an increased risk of contracting pancreatic cancer.  The researchers say that it is unclear why the drugs might affect cancer risks in men and women differently.  

 

Research has suggested that people with pancreatic cancer may have an increased risk of diabetes, but it is unclear how diabetes—and the drugs used to treat it—may affect pancreatic risks in patients who were previously cancer-free.

 

Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare as far as cancers go, but it is one of the fastest progressing cancers, as well as very aggressive, as well.  Most patients do not survive more than two years after being diagnosed. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that approximately 44,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States this year, and close to 38,000 will die from this disease.

 

Dr. Peter Butler, a diabetes researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine, told Reuters Health the “one theme that seems to be coming through…is that the oldest drug we have for diabetes, metformin, is undoubtedly the best drug we have for diabetes.”  Butler believes that it is difficult to discern what cancer risks may be due to the drugs and what could be a result of poor diet and lack of exercise in people with diabetes. He concluded that evidence suggests that people with type II diabetes, who don’t have any medical reasons not to take metformin, should be on the drug, either alone or in combination with other anti-diabetes medications.

 

Based on data from the United Kingdom-based General Practice Research Database, “short-term use of metformin or sulfonylureas and/or insulin had no appreciable impact on pancreatic cancer risk.” But, the researchers found that “long-term use of each of these medications did appear to have a sizeable impact on pancreatic cancer risk among diabetics.” Although “female patients saw their risk go down with metformin treatment and up with sulfonylureas, male patients saw their risk go up with insulin.”

 

The study also found that diabetes mellitus was associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, but the risk was restricted to those with newly diagnosed diabetes (less than two years).  This backs up the findings of other scientists that short-term diabetes mellitus is likely caused by pancreatic cancer.

 

It is important to know the pros and cons of the drugs we take. It seems everything has a side effect but pancreatic cancer? That seems like quite an extreme side effect, especially since the survival rate does not usually exceed two years.

 

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