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About SickKids

July 5, 2012

Common diabetes drug promotes development of brain stem cells

SickKids researchers suggest metformin helps produce new brain cells and enhance memory  

TORONTO – Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) have found that metformin, a drug commonly used to treat Type II diabetes, can help trigger the pathway used to instruct stem cells in the brain to become neural (nerve) cells. Brain stem cells and the neural cells they generate play a role in the repair of the injured or degenerating brain.  This study suggests a novel therapeutic approach to treating people with brain injuries or potentially even neurodegenerative diseases.

The study – led by Dr. Freda Miller, Senior Scientist at SickKids and Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto – is published in the July 5 advance online edition of Cell Stem Cell.

“If you could take stem cells that normally reside in our brains and somehow use drugs to recruit them into becoming appropriate neural cell types, then you may be able to promote repair and recovery in at least some of the many brain disorders and injuries for which we currently have no treatment,” says Miller.

The research team says it was serendipity that led them to this study. About a year and a half ago, they found a pathway known as PKC-CBP that signalled embryonic neural stem cells to make neurons. Around the same time their collaborators from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that the same pathway was activated by metformin in liver cells; this was how metformin controlled glucose levels. On the basis of these findings, Miller’s team thought that perhaps metformin would activate the same pathway in neural stem cells, and would provide a way to enhance neural stem cell function in the brain.

Their hunch turned out to be correct.  The researchers found metformin promoted differentiation of human and mouse neural stem cells in culture. In adult mice, metformin was found to increase the development of new neurons in the brain and when mice performed water maze tests, metformin was found to increase their ability to learn and remember.  

Because metformin is already a commonly-used drug, clinical trials may not be very far off.  “As a next step, we would be interested to see if individuals with acquired brain injury might benefit from taking metformin,” says Miller.

Funding was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Stem Cell Network, the Three To Be Foundation, the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine and SickKids Foundation.

About The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada’s leading centre dedicated to advancing children’s health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally.  Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system.  SickKids is proud of its vision of Healthier Children. A Better World.™ For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca. 

About Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning 
The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning will bring together researchers from different scientific disciplines and a variety of clinical perspectives, to accelerate discoveries, new knowledge and their application to child health — a different concept from traditional research building designs. The facility will physically connect SickKids science, discovery and learning activities to its clinical operations. Designed by award-winning architects Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. and HDR Inc. with a goal to achieve LEED® Gold Certification for sustainable design, the Gilgan Centre will create an architectural landmark as the eastern gateway to Toronto’s Discovery District. The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning is funded by a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Government of Ontario, philanthropist Peter Gilgan and community support for the ongoing fundraising campaign. For more information, please visit www.sickkidsfoundation.com/bepartofit.

For more information, please contact:

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-6380
email: matet.nebres@sickkids.ca

Caitlin McNamee-Lamb
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-7654 ext. 1436
email: caitlin.mcnamee-lamb@sickkids.ca

Freda Miller video