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Department of pharmacology and toxicology researcher Dr Abigail Bland said New Zealand was far behind the rest of the world when it came to accessing treatments for cancer.
She is investigating metformin — commonly used to treat type-2 diabetes — as a treatment for the lung cancer subtype ALK+ that predominantly affects non-smokers, young people and Maori, Pacific and Asian ethnic groups.
"This project started because there’s a lot of epidemiological evidence that shows patients who actually take metformin have a reduced risk of getting cancer, compared with people who don’t."
So far, her research had concluded that metformin had chemotherapeutic effects via mitochondria, so it was likely able to suppress tumour growth by depleting the energy production of cancer cells.
Dr Bland said it could be used to reduce the risk of people getting cancer, but she was focusing on it as a cancer treatment drug.
"Especially in New Zealand, we are really limited in our cancer drugs that are funded by Pharmac.
"Compared to Australia, we fund hardly anything.
"We have only four lung cancer drugs available for public funding, including chemotherapy, whereas Australia has 12.
"The ones that we don’t fund can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year. In the last few years, patients have been paying this and they just can’t afford it.
"Metformin is super cheap and it’s funded. So if it can be used for cancer, it would allow a huge amount of people to have access to it instead of having to pay $10,000 a month.
"If it works, it could be a game-changer."
She said it was now being trialled in human studies of people with lung cancer.
However, she wanted to further explore her "energy production" hypothesis.
"So I’m really trying to pinpoint a mechanism of how it can help treat cancer.
"It’s destroying the cancer cells’ production of energy — basically, the cells need energy to function, and if we stop them making energy, then they can’t function anymore.
"Metformin could have use in any cancer."
If metformin was found to be beneficial for cancer treatment, New Zealand could save a lot of money in both its research and the costs to the patient, she said.
Metformin was generally well tolerated compared with cancer drugs which had negative side-effects.
"It could accelerate through most of the testing required for new drugs because its safety has already been proven," she said.