A combination of drugs, including aspirin and statins, are being tested to treat cancer and other illnesses. There is mounting clinical evidence that the "repurposing" of existing drugs could offer effective new treatments.
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Right now we’d like to take a few moments to tell you all about aspirin. Did you know that aspirin may help treat cancer as well as headaches. The pain’s gone, so tension’s gone. It’s not the only drug being used to treat an illness that it wasn’t originally intended for.
But for some people, using old drugs for new treatments or “repurposing” can be the difference between life and death. I still can’t find the appropriate words to describe how horrible it is to have to tell your own parents that you’ll be dead before them.
Melanie Kennedy, mother of two young boys was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. It soon spread to her liver. She was given five years to live. If you have an incurable cancer you want to explore every option.
Nobody wants to leave their children early and nobody wants to die young. Determined to see her children grow up she began to search for experimental treatments to help combat the disease. I did a lot of research into what else was out there because I wanted to outlive the five years. I looked into quite a few different options which is how I found out about repurposed drugs.
Through a private-health clinic Melanie began a course of treatment using repurposed drugs
while continuing conventional chemotherapy with the NHS. The clinic recommended she take an antibiotic called doxycycline, metformin, usually used to treat type-2 diabetes, a statin, or cholesterol-lowering drug, and mebendazole, a worming agent.
All these drugs were designed for other purposes but may have anti-cancer properties. In simple terms repurposing drugs is taking an existing drug that has been licensed for a particular therapeutic indication or a medical condition and seeking to use it in a different clinical setting.
A very good example is that of aspirin which actually was initially used as a painkiller when it was first licensed. Nowadays we predominantly use it as a blood thinner but actually there are clinical trials in progress looking at its role in an anti-cancer setting.
So why aren’t more drugs repurposed?
When a new drug is brought to market it is protected by a patent giving the company that developed it exclusive rights to sell it. This stops copycat drugs being sold by competitors allowing the developer to make a profit. But many existing drugs that could be repurposed are no longer covered by patents so companies have less incentive to pay the cost of testing them for new conditions.
And there’s another stumbling block. Doctors are reluctant to prescribe a drug to treat an illness that it wasn’t designed for. We’re very loth to use medications outside of the particular reasons that they’re licensed for use. And that’s because if there are any issues when patients then take those drugs the doctor is ultimately responsible. To make sure Melanie isn’t having problems with the experimental drugs she must have regular checkups.
Hi Mel, lovely to see you. Do you want to give me a little bit of an overview? How have things been since we last spoke to you? – Great, I’ve had another scan. After a two-year course of chemotherapy along with repurposed drugs her scans are showing no new evidence of disease. When I got the news that my liver was clear. I didn’t believe him. I made him turn the computer monitor around and I read it for myself. Doctors can’t say with certainty that her dramatic improvement was caused by the repurposed drugs.
For that the trial she’s part of must be completed. But there’s a lot of clinical evidence to suggest that there’s a huge untapped medicine cabinet of generic drugs that could help treat cancer.
And many other conditions including motor neurone disease and schizophrenia. There are many benefits of repurposing medications. I suppose the main one is in terms of both time and money.
Most new medications cost over $2bn to bring through the whole clinical-trial process and actually license them for use in clinical practice. That takes a long time and is expensive for drug companies and for the NHS.
Drug repurposing is cheaper than developing new medicines because the drug has already been tested for safety which itself is hugely expensive. Melanie believes this trial has saved her life.
But for more trials like this to take place governments will need to change the incentives for pharmaceutical companies and solve the patent problem.