Is there a drug that can be used to prevent cancer

Does the drug also help against cancer?

Basically, drugs are developed with a very specific goal - for example to relieve pain, lower blood pressure, or cure diseases.

The development of such a drug is rocky. It takes an average of 13 years from the idea to approval. Most candidates don't even make it that far.

But despite the lengthy process, there is still one element of surprise in the end: when drugs that were intended for a specific purpose show a different, unexpected effect later or in combination with other active ingredients.

Fast and cheap: Recycle medicines

It is precisely this effect that researchers want to make better use of - in order to tackle nothing less than cancer. Drug repositioning is the keyword.

The advantages of this approach: The lengthy research and approval processes have been completed and the active ingredients have been found to be safe for medical use. The further development or repositioning is faster, easier and cheaper than with a completely newly developed drug.

The scientists analyzed around 5000 non-oncological active substances. Almost 50 of them had anti-cancer effects

From old to new

Occasionally there is always positive news to report here. For example, in 2020, researchers at the UT Southwestern Simmons Cancer Center discovered a combination of drugs designed to stop cancer cells from growing. A drug that is already on the market is intended to counteract resistance to a promising new cancer drug that is currently in clinical studies.

Or cancer researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway had tested hundreds of different drugs over several years to see how they affect cancer cells. They found that a remedy for parasites such as tapeworms and giardia contains the substance NTZ (nitazoxanide), which acts like a tailor-made medicine against prostate and colon cancer.

"We have discovered that this specific substance blocks the signaling pathway in cancer cells and causes them to stop growing," says Karl-Henning Kalland from the Department of Clinical Sciences at UiB.

It is not often that researchers discover a substance that targets specific molecules as precisely as this one. A 2018 study confirmed the researchers' results with regard to brain tumors (glioblastoma multiforme) - but also referred to the need for further research.

Well-maintained drug library

It is often difficult to keep track of the current research situation. This is exactly where scientists from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute come in. They published a study in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer - the largest of its kind using the Drug Repurposing Hub.

The 2020 database included over 6000 existing drugs and compounds that are either FDA approved or proven safe in clinical trials. The drugs are listed with their chemical structure, effectiveness and previous uses.

With the study, the researchers also systematically examined the entire collection - which mainly consists of non-cancer drugs - for its cancer-fighting properties for the first time.

Successful search for clues

The surprise: The researchers found almost 50 active ingredients that could have a previously undetected cancer-fighting effect. On this basis, the development of new cancer drugs could be accelerated or existing drugs could be used for the treatment of cancer.

"We actually thought we were lucky to find even one compound with anti-cancer properties, so we were surprised to find so many," said Todd Golub, director of the cancer program at Broad Institute and colleagues.

Don't leave it to chance

"We created the Drug Repurposing Hub to allow researchers to make these types of accidental discoveries in a more conscious way," says lead study author Steven Corsello, oncologist at the Dana Farber Institute and founder of the drugs -Database.

One such "accidental discovery" that Corsello alludes to was acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) - better known to many as the active ingredient in the drug aspirin - which was originally developed as a pain reliever. It was then determined that the tablets can also prevent heart attacks and strokes. But does it really do that? More on this in the video.

The discovery of Viagra as a sexual enhancer was pure coincidence: Originally the active ingredient sildenafil was supposed to be tested against heart problems and high blood pressure, but during the study it turned out that the active ingredient disappointed the hopes placed in it.

Nonetheless, many of the male study participants asked to be allowed to keep the preparation after the end of the research project.

In all of them, erectile function had improved dramatically. By the way, Viagra is also supposed to ensure longer breath when mountaineering - or as a prophylaxis or therapy for altitude sickness.

Viagra: Planned as a drug for heart problems, ended as a sexual enhancer

Responsible approach

But as amusing as this excursus into drug testing may be, there is another way.

In 2016, the news took off that certain chemotherapies work better when they are combined with the opioid methadone. This led to high expectations of the anti-tumor effect of the agent among those affected and their relatives.

The German Society for Hematology and Medical Oncology (DGHO) then published an information sheet for patients in which a clear distinction is made between the "use of methadone in pain therapy for cancer patients" and "use as an anti-tumor drug" - that is, cancer drug.

The German Cancer Aid also emphasized in a statement that "the use of methadone as a cancer drug outside of clinical studies is not justified".

Despite all research ambitions, the hope that accompanies reports like this must not fade into the background.

This article was updated on February 4, 2021

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