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Anti-epileptic drug could help beat cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

15 May 2006

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A new combination of two drugs, including one commonly used in the treatment of epilepsy, has proved effective at killing cancer cells, according to research published in the British Journal of Cancer* today (Tuesday 16 May 2006).

The results, from the Section of Thoracic Oncology, Surgery Branch, of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research in the United States, raise the prospect of a new form of chemotherapy to treat many types of cancer. The advantage of this combination is that the anti-epileptic, called valproic acid, is a NICE-approved drug, and the second compound, called UCN-01, has been used in clinical trials. Researchers therefore already know a lot about the effects of these molecules on the human body.

If successful, this combined therapy would be another example of medical compounds in use for other conditions later being developed for treating and preventing cancer. In recent years, for example, the household painkiller aspirin has shown promising anticancer properties in clinical trials. Valproic acid has a weak anticancer effect on its own but in this new combination it becomes highly effective against cancer cells.

Principal investigator Dr Dao Nguyen said: “We are very encouraged by these latest results, and strongly believe that drug combinations including valproic acid will, in time, reach the clinic and help cancer patients.”

Dr Nguyen’s group was researching ways to enhance the anticancer effects of a group of molecules called histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACIs). When they found out that valproic acid was a member of this group, and had also shown anticancer properties, they realised it would be a good candidate for development because its characteristics were already well documented.

Having shown that valproic acid combinations can kill cancer cells in the lab, the research team still have to show that it can work in people.

Dr Nguyen added: “We also need to continue searching for combinations of valproic acid and other agents that achieve potent killing of cancer cells at lower concentrations. This will reduce the side effects associated with high doses of the drug.”

Professor Herbie Newell, director of translational research at Cancer Research UK, which owns the British Journal of Cancer, said: “As cancer researchers, we have to be alert to the fact that it is not just ‘new’ drugs that can help us treat cancer. There are a number of drugs being developed that started out life as treatments for other illnesses.

“Even if this particular combination turns out not to work in people, the search for a winning combination will continue. Research of this kind, taking well-known drugs and enhancing their existing anticancer effects, can save time and money in the search for new and better cancer treatments.”


For media enquiries please contact Michael Regnier in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8309 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264059.