Patients with ovarian cancer who took the drug metformin for diabetes had a better survival rate than patients who did not take the drug. These findings may play an important role for researchers as they study the effectiveness of existing medications in treating different or new diseases.

Metformin is widely prescribed for managing diabetes, and previous research by others has shown its promise for other cancers. This study adds ovarian cancer to the list.

The research team compared the survival of 61 patients with ovarian cancer who were taking metformin and 178 patients who were not taking metformin. After 5 years, 67% of the patients who took metformin were still surviving, compared with 47% of those who did not take the medication. When the researchers analyzed factors such as the patients’ body mass index, the severity of the cancer, type of chemotherapy, and quality of surgery, the patients taking metformin were nearly four times more likely to survive compared with those not taking the medication.

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“Our study demonstrated improved survival in women with ovarian cancer that were taking metformin,” says coauthor Sanjeev Kumar, MBBS, a Mayo Clinic gynecologic oncology fellow. “The results are encouraging, but as with any retrospective study, many factors cannot be controlled for us to say if there is a direct cause and effect. Rather, this is further human evidence for a potential beneficial effect of a commonly used drug which is relatively safe in humans. These findings should provide impetus for prospective clinical trials in ovarian cancer.”

The researchers explained that the results may pave the way for using metformin in large-scale randomized trials of ovarian cancer. The high rate of mortality in ovarian cancer indicates the great need to develop new therapies. Metformin may potentially be one of those options.

This research was reported in Cancer (2012; doi:10.1002/cncr.27706).