Developing type 2 diabetes can also increase an individual’s risk of cancer, garnering significant attention from the health care community considering that around 8.3 percent of the population is living with the condition. A recent study conducted by researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that a specific class of drugs used for the treatment of type 2 diabetes may also lower a female diabetic’s chance of developing cancer by around 32 percent.

According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes is a bodily disorder identified by either low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) levels due to the body’s rejection of insulin, also known as insulin resistance. The problem diabetics run into with treating their condition lies in balancing blood sugar levels so that they’re not too high or not too low.

Around 25.8 million children and adults in the Unites States suffer from diabetes and an estimated seven million are undiagnosed. Diabetes contributed to 44 percent of new kidney failure reports in 2008. It is also considered the leading cause of blindness among adults between the ages of 20 and 74.

Dr. Sangeeta Kashyap, associate professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic's Endocrinology & Metabolism Institute, and his colleagues compared 25,613 patients enrolled in the Cleveland Clinic Diabetes Registry against a histology-based tumor registry that included 48,051 cancer reports. Out of 890 cancer cases, 25 percent were attributed to prostate and breast cancer over the course of the eight-year study.

The research team tracked the use of insulin sensitizers and insulin secretagogues, two of the most common drugs used by diabetics. By increasing the muscle, fat, and liver response to insulin, insulin sensitizers — such as metformin and Avandia — lower both blood sugar and insulin levels in the body. Insulin secretagogues, which include glyburide, glipizide, and glimeride, increase insulin production through the stimulation of pancreatic beta cells.

Female diabetic patients prescribed a range of insulin sensitizers were able to lower their risk of developing cancer by 21 percent. When the insulin secretagogue, sulphonylurea, was cross-examined against the insulin sensitizer thiazolidinedione, the latter was found to lower women’s cancer risk by 32 percent. Unfortunately, no such results were noticed in male diabetic patients.

"What this study shows us is that using insulin secretagogues to increase insulin production correlates with an increased cancer risk in women with type 2 diabetes," Dr. Kashyap explained. "By contrast, insulin sensitizers cut insulin levels and can decrease cancer growth. So, clearly, when prescribing anti-diabetic medications, it's important to consider the impact a drug has on fueling cancer growth." 

Source: Wells B, Zimmerman R, Kashyap S, et al. Gender-specific effects of oral hypoglycaemic agents on cancer risk in type 2 diabetes mellitus. Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism. 2013.