Health

An old drug for alcoholism finds new life as cancer treatment

Back in 1971, a 38 year old woman suffering from breast cancer provided researchers with an information that might revolutionize cancer treatments in the future. The woman’s cancer spread to her bones, which resulted in a fatal turn of events. Unable to deal with this horrible disease, she started drinking heavily and turned into an alcoholic which forced doctors to stop all cancer treatments. Instead, they gave her a drug that was supposed to stop her from drinking. After her death 10 years later, the autopsy revealed something unexpected.

The tumor that spread to her bones was almost completely gone, leaving only a few cancer cells in her marrow.

This case, along with many other lab studies suggest that disulfiram, or commercially know as Antabuse, which is used by recovering alcoholics, might also be a cancer fighter.

Scientists think they know how the medicine works, suggesting that it’s by blocking a molecule that is part of a process that gets rid of cellular waste.

By making tests on animals even back in the 70’s, scientists discovered that disulfiram destroyed cancer cells and slowed the growth of the tumor. A small clinical trial in 1993 showed that the medicine increased survival in women battling with breast cancer. However despite these discoveries, the drug didn’t get the medical attention, because scientists had disagreements of the way it worked.

A new study conducted by a Danish-Czech-U.S. team, showed encouraging results. By making the research with more than 3000 patients who took Antabuse, they discovered that the cancer death rate was 34% lower for the 1177 patients that stayed on the drug compared with those who stopped taking it.

“This paper solves a puzzle that has persisted in cancer research for decades,” says Michele Pagano cancer biologist of New York University School of Medicine in New York City, not involved in the study. 

The research confirmed that the drug successfully slows down the growth of breast cancer tumor by testing it on mice. They combined Antabuse with copper supplements as it inhanses the effect and blocks the machinery that cells use to dispose of misfolded and unneeded proteins.

 “Everything is frozen, partly because of the resulting protein buildup, the cancer cells become stressed and die”, says Jiri Bartek cancer biologist of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen, a co-leader of the study.

Also an interesting fact is that the drug doesn’t destroy the healthy cells in the patient’s body.

According to biologist Thomas Helleday of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, despite all of this disulfiram is probably not the cure for most cancer patients, however the drug might help extend the lives of patients suffering from metastatic cancer, if combined with chemotherapy.

The drug has already passed safety testing so it’s approved and it’s only a matter of time when disulfiram will find a new better use, that costs way less compared to other options.

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