The LKB1 tumour suppressor phosphorylates and activates AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase) when cellular energy levels are low, thereby suppressing growth through multiple pathways, including inhibiting the mTORC1 (mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1) kinase that is activated in the majority of human cancers. Blood glucose-lowering Type 2 diabetes drugs also induce LKB1 to activate AMPK, indicating that these compounds could be used to suppress growth of tumour cells. In the present study, we investigated the importance of the LKB1–AMPK pathway in regulating tumorigenesis in mice resulting from deficiency of the PTEN (phosphatase and tensin homologue deleted on chromosome 10) tumour suppressor, which drives cell growth through overactivation of the Akt and mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) kinases. We demonstrate that inhibition of AMPK resulting from a hypomorphic mutation that decreases LKB1 expression does not lead to tumorigenesis on its own, but markedly accelerates tumour development in PTEN+/− mice. In contrast, activating the AMPK pathway by administration of metformin, phenformin or A-769662 to PTEN+/− mice significantly delayed tumour onset. We demonstrate that LKB1 is required for activators of AMPK to inhibit mTORC1 signalling as well as cell growth in PTEN-deficient cells. Our findings highlight, using an animal model relevant to understanding human cancer, the vital role that the LKB1–AMPK pathway plays in suppressing tumorigenesis resulting from loss of the PTEN tumour suppressor. They also suggest that pharmacological inhibition of LKB1 and/or AMPK would be undesirable, at least for the treatment of cancers in which the mTORC1 pathway is activated. Most importantly, our results demonstrate the potential of AMPK activators, such as clinically approved metformin, as anticancer agents, which will suppress tumour development by triggering a physiological signalling pathway that potently inhibits cell growth.

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