Repurposing drugs for faster cancer treatment

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A palliative care nurse dispenses medicine to a patient. Copyright: Kieran Dodds/Panos

Speed read

  • Drugs developed for particular diseases can be repurposed to treat cancer
  • Developing drugs specifically for cancer may take 10 years or more for development
  • Repurposing existing drugs can save time on safety trials and approvals

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[KUALA LUMPUR] Repurposing existing drugs to treat cancer is one way to get around the slow and costly process of developing specific medicines to treat the disease, the TYAN-YSN international meet on cancer research (30 October — 1 November) heard. 

One of the more famous examples of drug repositioning is that of sildenafil citrate, originally developed to treat cardiovascular disease but more widely sold as a remedy for erectile dysfunction under the brand name of Viagra.

“There should be a strong link between the scientists and pharmaceutical industry to provide synergy for a complete cancer cure”

Yusuf Baran, Izmir Institute of Technology

Sanjeev Krishna, professor of molecular parasitology and medicine at St George’s Hospital, University of London, says the logic behind repurposing is to cut the time frame and decrease the cost of drug development by building on research and development that went in establishing the safety of drugs meant for ailments other than cancer.

Krishna cites the example of artemisinin, the anti-malaria drug which has shown potential in treating colorectal cancer.

“We already know there are no negative side-effects to using artemisinin,” he explains to SciDev.Net. “While it might take another 4—5 years before we can conclusively confirm the value of treating colorectal cancer with artemisinin, it is twice as fast as going through the regular drug development route.”

Drug repositioning may be especially valuable for hard-to-treat cancers like pancreatic cancer, says Chee Onn Leong, professor of cell biology and deputy director of research at the International Medical University, Malaysia. He emphasises the importance of repurposing established drugs to treat pancreatic cancer, which has a five per cent survival rate.

Yusuf Baran, professor at the Izmir Institute of Technology, Turkey, and executive committee member of The World Academy of Sciences Young Affiliates Network, cautions that while repurposing is cheaper, completing the efficacy studies can still be costly, especially during late clinical trials.    

“There should be a strong link between the scientists and pharmaceutical industry to provide synergy for a complete cancer cure,” Baran tells SciDev.Net. “There may be trust issues on both sides. Finding a solution on how both sides will benefit and how to share the results of the study are among issues that must be threshed out at the very beginning.”

“Where repurposing generic drugs may appear unprofitable, governments, especially those with strong generic drug production industries like India and Israel, and those with strong health support systems like Turkey — where 95 per cent of the people are insured and the state is the main buyer of drugs — may find it beneficial to support and allocate resources needed for development,” he says.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.