A drug used to treat alcohol addiction could help destroy deadly brain tumours, research has shown.
For more than 60 years, disulfiram has been used as part of therapy to wean people off alcohol. It makes the body acutely sensitive to alcohol, producing an unpleasant reaction.
Now scientists believe the drug could offer new hope to patients with glioblastoma, the most common and deadly form of brain cancer.
Unlike most drugs, disulfiram is able to penetrate the “blood-brain barrier” - a physical and molecular wall that keeps toxic substances out of the brain.
Laboratory tests have shown that the drug is effective at killing cultured glioblastoma cells. This is especially true when disulfiram is combined with gemcitabine, one of the few chemotherapy drugs that can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Because disulfiram is already a licensed drug with a known safety record, it could have a fast passage to clinical trials as a brain cancer treatment.
Study leader Dr Weiguang Wang, from the University of Wolverhampton, said: “We've been studying the cancer-fighting properties of disulfiram for over a decade, so it's very exciting to have reached a stage where clinical trials may be possible.
“These latest findings suggest that the drug may work by transporting copper into the cancer cells, generating destructive free-radicals that build up and kill the cell. Glioblastoma cells tend to have much higher levels of copper than normal tissues, meaning additional copper may tip them over the edge while sparing normal tissues.
“The idea of using copper to tackle cancer was first suggested by UK scientists in the 1920s, but this is the first time that scientists have found a way of successfully transporting excess copper into cancer cells and shown how this can be combined with conventional chemotherapy treatment to help kill glioblastoma cells. We're now working on the best way to deliver dilsulfiram and hope to begin clinical trials in cancer patients as soon as funding can be secured.”
The research is published in the British Journal of Cancer.
Dr Julie Sharp, from Cancer Research UK, which owns the journal, said: “One of the big challenges in cancer treatment is how to successfully kill tumour cells without harming the surrounding tissues.
“Drugs like this one, which can both penetrate the blood brain barrier and increase the sensitivity of cancer cells to chemotherapy, could play an important role in overcoming the problem of resistance to help improve the outlook for people with brain tumours.”
Sarah Lindsell, head of The Brain Tumour Charity, which funded the research, said: “We see first-hand the devastating effects that glioblastomas have on patients and their families and this research could be a foundation to improve treatment and extend life expectancy. It is only through funding much-needed research that we can offer real hope to people who are diagnosed with a glioblastoma in the future.”
Each year around 5,000 people develop malignant brain tumours in the UK.
Only around 27 per cent of patients in England diagnosed with glioblastoma survive for a year or more.