- Original investigation
- Open Access
The protective effect and underlying mechanism of metformin on neointima formation in fructose-induced insulin resistant rats
© Lu et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 19 February 2013
Accepted: 2 April 2013
Published: 5 April 2013
Insulin resistance is strongly associated with the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, the underlying mechanisms linking insulin resistance and the development of atherosclerosis have not been fully elucidated. Moreover, the protective effect of antihyperglycemic agent, metformin, is not fully understood. This study investigated the protective effects and underlying mechanisms of metformin in balloon-injury induced stenosis in insulin resistant rats.
After 4 weeks high fructose diet, rats received balloon catheter injury on carotid arteries and were sacrificed at 1 and 4 weeks post injury. Biochemical, histological, and molecular changes were investigated.
Plasma levels of glucose, insulin, total cholesterol, triglyceride, free fatty acids, and methylglyoxal were highly increased in fructose-induced insulin resistant rats and treatment with metformin significantly improved this metabolic profile. The neointimal formation of the carotid arteries was enhanced, and treatment with metformin markedly attenuated neointimal hyperplasia. A significant reduction in BrdU-positive cells in the neointima was observed in the metformin-treated group (P < 0.01). Insulin signaling pathways were inhibited in insulin resistant rats while treatment with metformin enhanced the expression of insulin signaling pathways. Increased expression of JNK and NFKB was suppressed following metformin treatment. Vasoreactivity was impaired while treatment with metformin attenuated phenylephrine-induced vasoconstriction and enhanced methacholine-induced vasorelaxation of the balloon injured carotid arteries in insulin resistant rats.
The balloon-injury induced neointimal formation of the carotid arteries is enhanced by insulin resistance. Treatment with metformin significantly attenuates neointimal hyperplasia through inhibition of smooth muscle cell proliferation, migration, and inflammation as well as by improvement of the insulin signaling pathway.
Insulin resistance is the key pathophysiological feature of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Emerging evidence suggests that insulin resistance is strongly associated with the development of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease [1, 2]. There is a strong association between reduced insulin sensitivity and carotid intima-media thickness . Moreover, insulin resistance enhances neointimal hyperplasia after balloon injury in rats [3–5].
Methylglyoxal (MG) is an intermediate endogenous product of glucose and fructose . MG is highly elevated in diabetes and is associated with the development of diabetic complications [7–9]. It has been shown that MG administration induces atherosclerotic changes in rats . Substantial evidence suggests that increased dietary consumption of fructose induces insulin resistance in animals and humans [11–13]. Fructose-induced insulin resistance has been well established and characterized in rats [12, 14]. We and others have demonstrated that fructose is a major precursor of MG [6, 15]. Therefore, there is likely an association between MG production and the development of fructose-induced insulin resistance and insulin resistance-associated atherosclerosis exists.
Metformin is an insulin-sensitizing agent with potent antihyperglycemic properties. These properties of metformin are mainly attributed to suppression of hepatic gluconeogenesis and to increased peripheral tissue insulin sensitivity . Metformin serves as the scavenger of MG and reduces the rate of progression to type 2 diabetes in humans with obesity or impaired glucose tolerance . Metformin has long been known to reduce the development of atherosclerotic lesions in animal models, and clinical studies have shown the drug to reduce surrogate measures such as carotid intima-media thickness .
However, little is known of the protective effects and mechanismas of metformin on the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis in insulin resistance. The aim of this study was to investigate the protective effects of metformin and the underlying mechanisms on balloon-injury induced stenosis in fructose-induced insulin resistance.
Unless otherwise specified, all chemicals were purchased from Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, Mo., USA).
All experiments were performed following the guidelines of the Canadian Council on Animal Care and all experimental protocols were approved by the Animal Research Ethics Board at the University of Saskatchewan. After one week of adaptation with regular diet, male Sprague–Dawley (SD) rats (aged of 6 weeks and weighing 175 g) were randomly assigned to one of two different groups (n = 8 each): high fructose diet (60%, Harlan) (experimental) or normal chow diet (controls) with or without administration of metformin. Animals in the experimental group were fed a fructose-rich diet (60%; Harlan) for 4 weeks in order to induce insulin resistance [12, 14]. In another group, metformin (300 mg/kg/day in 3 g/L in drinking water) was administered simultaneously throughout the experimental period to rats receiving the high fructose diet (60%; Harlan). Metformin was also given to a subgroup of rats receiving normal chow diet. Rats were housed in cages on a 12-hour light/dark cycle at ambient temperature (21-23°C), and relative humidity was held at 55 ± 10% in the colony room. Water was given ad libitum.
After 4 weeks of diet intervention, rats received carotid balloon injury and were sacrificed at 1 and 4 weeks post balloon injury. The above diet regime was continued until the end of the study.
Carotid artery balloon injury
After the 4-week dietary intervention, the balloon denudation injuries were performed in the rat carotid artery following a previously described procedure . Briefly, a 2F Fogarty balloon embolectomy catheter (Baxter Health Care Co, Toronto) was introduced into the left external carotid artery and further into the common carotid to denude the vessel of endothelium. Bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) (100 mg/kg) was given intraperitoneally 18 hours before euthanization on day 7 after balloon injury for analysis of cellular proliferation in the various groups of rats. The animals were euthanized with an overdose of pentobarbital (200 mg/kg) at 1 or 4 weeks following balloon injury and the carotid arteries were collected for analyses.
After 10 hours of fasting, rats were anesthetised and blood pressure was measured. Fasting blood (1 ml) was collected through the abdominal vein to determine fasting glucose and insulin levels prior to administering 1 U insulin/kg of body weight via the portal vein for insulin tolerance testing. The animals were euthanized with an overdose of pentobarbital (200 mg/kg) 15 min after insulin was given and the blood was collected. Plasma glucose and lipid profiles were determined by enzymatic colorimetric techniques on Roche Cobas 6000 (Roche Diagnostics, USA). Plasma insulin was assayed using a commercially available immunoassay kit by ELISA (Mercodia, Upsala, Sweden). Non-esterified free fatty acids were measured using a method described previously in our laboratory . Plasma MG was measured by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) .
Histological and morphometric analyses
Histological and morphometric analyses were performed as described previously . The carotid arteries were perfusion fixed at a constant physiologic pressure of 125 mmHg with 4% paraformaldehyde. The carotid arteries were carefully stripped of adventitia and excised between the origin at the aorta and the carotid bifurcation. The cross-sections of carotid artery were stained with hematoxylin and eosin and photographed. The intimal and medial cross-sectional areas of the carotid arteries were measured using an NIH Image 1.62 program and the intima/media ratios of the cross-sections were calculated.
After the collection of carotid arteries from the above, the carotid artery was fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde for 12 hours, embedded in paraffin and sectioned for immunohistostaining. Detection of smooth muscle cell (SMC) DNA synthesis was performed using a modified BrdU incorporation method as previously described . Briefly, sections were incubated with monoclonal mouse antibody against BrdU (1/10 dilution, Cat. No. 1-299-964, Roche). Primary antibodies were detected using sheep anti-mouse-Ig-alkaline phosphatase (1/10 dilution). Hematoxylin was used for countstaining. Proliferation was determined by calculating the BrdU labeling index expressed as the ratio of BrdU-positive cells to total nucleated cells. Apoptosis was also assessed using a terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT)-mediated dUTP nick end-labeling (TUNEL) apoptosis detection kit (Cat. No. 17–141, UPSTATE) .
Smooth muscle cell culture and wound assay
Smooth muscle cells (SMCs) were isolated from the neointima of the injured carotid arteries of rats by enzymatic dispersion as described above . To examine the role of fructose and MG on the SMC response to injury, we performed a scrape wound assay on confluent SMCs grown in vitro - an assay that mimics the cell migration and proliferation occurring during intimal hyperplasia . Cells were grown to confluence in a 6-well tissue culture plate and then wounded with a P20 pipette tip to create a lengthwise wound measuring ~300 μm in width. Measurements of wound width were obtained every 24 hours over a period of 72 hours using Nikon NIS-elements BR3.1. Mean values were expressed as a percent of wound closure, which was calculated as follows: Percent wound closure = 1 − (widtht/width0) × 100%.
Matrix metalloproteinase activity
To investigate whether matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) could be involved, the effects of fructose and MG on MMP activities were assessed in an in vitro experiment. MMP activity was measured using gelatin zymography. In brief, medial and neointimal SMCs were harvested and seeded at a density of 60,000 cells/well in 96-well plates. The cells were incubated with 10% FCS for 8 hours to allow cell attachment. The cells were then serum starved for 16 hours, followed by incubation with various concentrations of fructose or MG in 10% FCS for 24 hours. Conditioned media from each well was used as a substrate for MMP activity as previously reported . After electrophoresis, the gels were incubated and then stained with Coomassie blue (BioRad). MMP activity was evident as cleared bands of substrate lysis, with MMPs identified by their molecular weights. The intensity of the bands was quantitated by NIH image.
The Western blotting was performed following a previously described procedure [20, 23]. Since a large amount of protein is needed for Western blotting, the liver was used for determination of the expression of signalling molecules in insulin resistant rats. The rat livers were homogenized in a freshly prepared lysis buffer and centrifuged at 12,000g for 20 min at 4°C. Aliquots were run on 7.5-12% separating and 4% stacking gels and electro-transferred onto polyvinylidene fluoride membranes in transfer buffer. Dilutions (1:1,000) of primary antibodies to insulin receptor (IR), Tyr972-phosphorylated IR, insulin receptor substrate-1 (IRS-1), Tyr612-phosphorylated IRS-1, adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPKα), Thr172-phosphorylated AMPKα, and GAPDH (Cell Signaling Technology) were applied in blocking buffer. Goat anti-rabbit or goat anti-mouse secondary antibody (1:2,000 dilutions) (Santa Cruz Biotechnology) was applied and washed in TBS-Tween. Specific protein bands were detected using Western Lightning PLUS-ECL Reagents Plus (PerkinElmer Life and Analytical) and images were captured by an imaging system (ChemiDoc™ XRS + System, Bio-Rad). Relative band intensities were quantified using the Adobe Photoshop Program.
Measurement of mRNA levels in SMCs in vitro
Each experiment was repeated independently 3 times, and mRNA samples were assayed in triplicate.
Tissue contractility study
The tissue contractility study was conducted using a procedure described previously in our laboratory . In brief, carotid arteries were removed and placed in cold physiological saline solution (PSS). The carotid rings were carefully dissected and the vessel segments (2.0 mm) were mounted in a four-channel wire myograph (Multi myogragh, Model 610M, Denmark) aerated with a gas mixture of 95%O2-5%CO2 at 37°C. Phenylephrine (PHE, 10-8 to 10-5 mol/L) was added cumulatively to generate a PHE dose–response curves. The endothelium-dependent vasodilator, methacholine (Mch 10-9 to 10-5 mol/L), was added cumulatively to generate the relaxation dose responses.
Results are expressed as mean ± SD. All data were analyzed using analysis of variance (ANOVA). The difference between the variances of the two groups was compared using a two-tailed Student’s t test or one-way ANOVA followed by a post hoc analysis (Tukey test). Statistical significance was considered when P < 0.05.
The effects of metformin on metabolic changes in insulin resistant rats
Effects of metformin on metabolic changes in fructose-induced insulin resistant rats
Fructose diet (60%)
Fructose + Metformin
Body weight (g)
514.0 ± 25.4
554.0 ± 30.5*
517.2 ± 15.0†
Liver weight (g)
13.8 ± 2.1
18.0 ± 1.0
14.4 ± 2.2
Heart weight (g)
1.5 ± 0.2
2.1 ± 0.3
1.6 ± 0.1
Kidneys weight (g)
3.1 ± 0.7
4.7 ± 0.9
3.3 ± 0.5
Mean BP (mmHg)
94.6 ± 10.9
93.1 ± 4.5
86.5 ± 9.2
5.80 ± 0.41
6.32 ± 0.53*
5.24 ± 0.69‡
0.14 ± 0.02
0.55 ± 0.22*
0.28 ± 0.02†
3.26 ± 0.22
3.97 ± 0.18*
3.46 ± 0.22†
1.33 ± 0.05
1.42 ± 0.23*
1.48 ± 0.29†
0.97 ± 0.08
1.16 ± 0.12
0.82 ± 0.15†
2.10 ± 0.40
3.27 ± 1.02**
2.56 ± 0.75†
0.77 ± 0.18
2.00 ± 0.31**
1.17 ± 0.22‡
190.40 ± 52.94
513.33 ± 58.29**
238.00 ± 42.00†
Metformin treatment attenuates neointimal formation in fructose-induced insulin resistant rats
Antiproliferative effects of metformin on vascular SMCs
SMC proliferation was determined 7 days after carotid artery injury (Figures 2A and B). Treatment with metformin induced a significant reduction in the percentage of BrdU-positive cells in the neointima compared with vehicle controls (18.4 ± 2.8% vs. 43.5 ± 5.2%, P < 0.01, n = 6) (Figure 2D vs. Figure 2C). There was no significant difference of BrdU-labeled positive cells in media area between the two groups (4.7 ± 0.6% vs. 5.8 ± 0.9%, P > 0.05). Using TUNEL staining, we could not detect any significant change in the number of apoptotic cells in the neointima between the two groups (data not shown).
The effect of metformin on SMC migration
Metformin inhibits fructose and MG-induced intimal SMC migration
Wound closure (%)
28.5 ± 1.3
82.2 ± 5.30**
Fructose (30 mM)
54.1 ± 1.8
85.3 ± 1.9**
Fructose (30 mM) + Metformin (10 mM)
23.6 ± 1.1
73.6 ± 1.4*
MG (100 μM)
83.4 ± 0.9
96.7 ± 1.4*
MG (100 μM) + Metformin (10 mM)
22.2 ± 6.5
66.4 ± 6.9*
The effect of metformin on MMP activity
Expression of insulin signalling and inflammatory markers in fructose-induced insulin resistant rats
Improved vasoreactivity of carotids arteries by metformin in insulin resistant rats
High fructose intake has been shown to induce insulin resistance, weight gain, and hyperlipidemia in animals and humans . In our study, insulin resistance developed in SD rats following 8 weeks of feeding on a high fructose diet. The animals experienced characteristic changes that include increased body weight, glucose intolerance, increased serum insulin levels, and dyslipidemia. Treatment with metformin significantly improved these metabolic abnormalities. The observed effects of metformin are supported by the evidence that metformin decreases hepatic production of glucose and increases hepatic insulin sensitivity and glucose clearance [25, 26].
Insulin resistance is strongly associated with the development of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease [1, 2, 27]. In our study, severe neointimal hyperplasia developed following balloon injury in insulin-resistant rats compared to normal chow controls. The neointimal hyperplasia observed was consistent with neointimal SMC proliferation, suggesting SMC proliferation contributed largely to the increased neointimal formation [28, 29]. The neointimal hyperplasia of the carotid arteries was dramatically inhibited following treatment with metformin as compared with the untreated high fructose-fed rats those were determined at 1 week and 4 weeks after balloon injury. Neointimal SMC proliferation indicated by BrdU-positive cells was also inhibited in the group receiving metformin treatment. Metformin is known to reduce the development of atherosclerotic lesions and attenuate carotid intima-media thickness , but this is the first time that a similar effect on balloon injury-induced neointimal hyperplasia in insulin resistant rats has been demonstrated. Moreover, our in vitro scratch assay suggests that both fructose and MG-induced SMC migration may contribute to the neointimal formation and the inhibitory effect of metformin on SMC migration could contribute beneficial effects by reducing stenosis. Our in vitro experiment demonstrates that MMP activities were significantly increased in fructose or MG-treated SMCs. Treatment with metformin inhibited MMP activities. Previous studies have shown that MMP activity plays a major role in matrix accumulation and neointimal formation [24, 30]. The observed inhibitory effect on MMP activity and the upregulation of AMPK expression by metformin in our study may suggest that the suppressive effect on MMP is AMPK-dependent . Taken together, the increased SMCs proliferation, migration, and MMP activity induced by fructose are likely to contribute to the severe neointimal formation induced by balloon injury in insulin-resistant rats. Thus, metformin attenuated neointimal formation is mediated through inhibition of SMCs proliferation, migration, and MMP activity.
Plasma MG levels were highly increased in fructose-fed rats, while treatment with metformin dramatically decreased the MG levels. This effect can be attributed to metformin’s action as a scavenger of MG or through normalization of metabolic abnormalities . In a previous study, we have shown that fructose is the precursor of MG . Early research has also demonstrated that MG induces insulin resistance and that treatment with MG scavengers attenuates this effect in SD rats [32, 33]. Studies have shown that MG induces an inhibitory effect on phosphorylation of IRS-1, PI3K activity, and insulin-stimulated phosphorylation of protein kinase B (PKB) and extracellular-regulated kinase ½ (ERK½) . Metformin sensitizes insulin signalling through an AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK)-mediated phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN) down-regulation . Our findings show that the expression of AMPKa and IRS-1 was significantly down regulated in the liver in fructose-induced insulin-resistant rats while treatment with metformin reversed this inhibitory effect. These findings are consistent with metformin improving insulin signalling probably through lowering of MG levels. Increased expression of JNK and NFKB in SMCs suggests that inflammation may play a role in the pathogenesis of stenosis in fructose-induced insulin resistance and metformin plays a protective role through the inhibition of inflammatory pathway in insulin resistance and stenosis.
Vasorelaxation was severely impaired in balloon-catheter-injured carotid arteries in insulin-resistant rats. Nevertheless, vasorelaxation was significantly restored in rats that received treatment with metformin. We and others have demonstrated that impairment of endothelium-dependent vasorelaxation may be mediated by MG while metformin treatment significantly improves endothelial function and vasorelaxation [8, 18, 35–37]. These findings suggest that the improvement of endothelial function and vessel reactivity may be attributed to the effects of metformin on reduction of MG levels and improvement of insulin sensitivity . Another study demonstrated that metformin reduces catecholamine-induced vasoconstriction through endothelium dependent and independent mechanisms in rats . Demonstration of the vasoprotective effect of metformin in an insulin resistant model has not been previously reported.
In conclusions, this study has demonstrated that balloon-injury-induced neointimal formation of the carotid arteries is facilitated by fructose-induced insulin resistance. Treatment with metformin significantly attenuates balloon-injury induced neointimal hyperplasia through inhibition of SMC proliferation, migration, MMP activities, and inflammation, as well as by improvement of the insulin signaling pathway.
This study was supported by the grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Zhejiang Provincial Natural Science Foundation (QHM, JL, and JJ for 81170257/H0215 and Y2110513) as well as from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Saskatchewan (QHM and KA). We thank Ms. Heather Neufeld and Ms. Lei Xie for their technical assistance.
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