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Malaria drug increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy against head and neck cancers

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Posted September 28, 2019

World War 2 was a global-scale conflict and, therefore, soldiers had to work in mosquito-ridden areas. Malaria was just as big of a threat back then as it is today and a sick soldier is a soldier in danger. That is why they were administered quinacrine. Now scientists at the University of Birmingham found a new application for this old medicine – it could make cancer chemotherapy more effective.

Scientists found that malaria drug increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Image credit: Andreas Fechner for Qiagen via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Quinacrine used as medicine is very similar to the quinine, which makes tonic water glow. It is used to prevent malaria, but has other uses as well. For example, it has been used for treating tapeworm infections. Now scientists think that quinacrine could be used to treat head and neck cancer – the disease that affects around 11,900 people every year in UK alone.

Scientists tested quinacrine on cell cultures, in tumour biopsies from patients with head and neck cancer, and in mice. It is believed that quinacrine could be used to treat cancer, but there is an issue – side effects are very common, including toxic psychosis. In some cases quinacrine can even cause permanent damage. However, this new study showed that quinacrine increased the effectiveness of chemotherapy in mice with head and neck cancer and side-effects can be kept in check by keeping the dosage low. Furthermore, quinacrine increased the effectiveness of chemotherapy, allowing the dose to be halved while still maintaining the same impairment of tumour growth.

Quinacrine was also proved to be effective at reducing the growth of cancer cells grown in the lab, and in tumours. Dr Jennifer Bryant, lead author of the study, said: “This is important research in the laboratory and demonstrates the real potential in repurposing drugs. The team is now looking to translate these research findings into a clinical trial for head and neck cancer patients”.

Head and neck cancer is exceptionally terrible, because only limited treatment options are available. Even the ones that do exist pose a high risk of life-threatening or life-changing side effects. And prognosis is poor – only up to 50 % of patients survive when the disease is caught early, but in advanced stages statistics are even worse. Head and neck cancer can be prevented through a healthy lifestyle – up to 75 % of the cases are caused by alcohol and tobacco use. Other risk factors include Betel nut chewing, excessive consumption of eggs, processed meats, and red meat and various infections.

Quinacrine is not perfect by any means, knowing that it can cause severe side effects. In fact, modern medicine doesn’t like this drug at all – it is avoided unless its use is absolutely necessary. However, at low doses quinacrine can be pretty harmless. And, as this new study showed, small doses of quinacrine can halve the dose of chemotherapy needed. Now we will have to wait for clinical trials and their results.

 

Source: University of Birmingham

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