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Old anti-drinking drug shows potential as cancer treatment

Published on 07/12/17 at 09:38am

Disulfiram has been known as an anti-drinking compound for nearly seven decades. Initially, the compound was used in the vulcanisation of tires but workers at factories began noticing adverse reaction when drinking alcohol.

However, the connection was only officially discovered when scientists self-tested the compound to determine whether it could be used as an anti-parasitic, only to have strong, unpleasant symptoms when trying to enjoy a drink.

Now, the drug is commonly used to treat alcoholism. It essentially means that individuals taking the compound have hangover-like symptoms almost immediately after alcohol consumption.

In the 1970s, it was noted that people taking the medicine who then contracted cancer seemed to be able to fight cancer. However, it was never conclusively decided what was causing the effect and subsequent research dimmed.

Researchers from the Danish Cancer Society Research Center have published work that could significantly revive interest in the drug, after their three-part research found serious benefits of the drug and were able to explain its action.

The first part of their research was to determine the drugs impact when it had already been used in the population. Looking through the Danish cancer registry, they identified that when individuals with cancer who had already been taking disulfiram (or Antabuse, as it is known through its brand name) and continued to use the compound through cancer treatment, they seemed to have a lowered risk of death.

Of the 3,000 patients taking Antabuse when diagnosed, only 1177 patients continued to take the treatment but were found to have a cancer death rate 34% lower than those who had stopped taking the treatment. This effect was found to be consistent across prostate, breast and colon cancer.

The next step of research was to determine how the drug was able to manage this pronounced effect. The drug was found to immobilise a protein grouping called NPL4-p97, which has previously been found to boost the growth of tumours.

When the treatment was combined with a copper supplement, the effects of the drug were known to be boosted and the study was able to pinpoint why this was the case. In mouse studies, it was found that ditiocarb, produced when disulfiram is broken down, combined with the copper to block the disposal of misfolded and unneeded proteins – this acts to stress the tumour cells into dying.

The combination of ditiocarb and copper was found to be much more likely to appear in tumour tissue than in healthy tissue, explaining why it does not damage healthy tissue.

The research is promising but, as disulfiram is off-patent, it will rely on non-profit organisations and governmental funding to pursue further research into the area. As the drug’s safety profile is already known, it could potentially be a cheap and quick treatment to bring to patients.

Ben Hargreaves

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