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Athanasios Bikas, Kirk Jensen, Aneeta Patel, John Costello Jr, Dennis McDaniel, Joanna Klubo-Gwiezdzinska, Olexander Larin, Victoria Hoperia, Kenneth D Burman, Lisa Boyle, Leonard Wartofsky and Vasyl Vasko

Metformin inhibits thyroid cancer cell growth. We sought to determine if variable glucose concentrations in medium alter the anti-cancer efficacy of metformin. Thyroid cancer cells (FTC133 and BCPAP) were cultured in high-glucose (20 mM) and low-glucose (5 mM) medium before treatment with metformin. Cell viability and apoptosis assays were performed. Expression of glycolytic genes was examined by real-time PCR, western blot, and immunostaining. Metformin inhibited cellular proliferation in high-glucose medium and induced cell death in low-glucose medium. In low-, but not in high-glucose medium, metformin induced endoplasmic reticulum stress, autophagy, and oncosis. At micromolar concentrations, metformin induced phosphorylation of AMP-activated protein kinase and blocked p-pS6 in low-glucose medium. Metformin increased the rate of glucose consumption from the medium and prompted medium acidification. Medium supplementation with glucose reversed metformin-inducible morphological changes. Treatment with an inhibitor of glycolysis (2-deoxy-d-glucose (2-DG)) increased thyroid cancer cell sensitivity to metformin. The combination of 2-DG with metformin led to cell death. Thyroid cancer cell lines were characterized by over-expression of glycolytic genes, and metformin decreased the protein level of pyruvate kinase muscle 2 (PKM2). PKM2 expression was detected in recurrent thyroid cancer tissue samples. In conclusion, we have demonstrated that the glucose concentration in the cellular milieu is a factor modulating metformin's anti-cancer activity. These data suggest that the combination of metformin with inhibitors of glycolysis could represent a new strategy for the treatment of thyroid cancer.