Metformin is the most widely prescribed drug used to treat patients affected by Type 2 diabetes. Metformin has also been shown to prevent some forms of cell death; however, evidence suggests that it may have anti-neoplastic properties. All of these effects have been attributed to complex I inhibition, but the mechanism by which metformin leads to complex I inhibition is not fully understood. Although it has been reported that the incubation of functionally isolated complex I in the presence of high concentrations of metformin led to its inhibition, much lower concentrations of metformin have been shown to inhibit complex I in intact cells. In a recent issue of the Biochemical Journal, Bridges, Jones, Pollak and Hirst [(2014) Biochem. J. 462, 475–487] studied for the first time the effect of metformin on purified complex I. They report that millimolar concentrations of metformin directly inhibit complex I activity in a non-competitive manner. They also specify that the binding of metformin to complex I depends on its conformation. To explain the difference in concentration required to inhibit complex I in intact cells and on isolated enzyme, Bridges et al. (2014) propose that metformin concentrates within mitochondria in intact cells. Albeit theoretically plausible, this attractive hypothesis is not directly tested by Bridges et al. (2014) Moreover, although sparse, the current literature does not support this hypothesis.

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