New role for old medicine

UF Health researchers identify noncancer drugs that could improve cancer survival

New Role for old medicine

UF Health researchers identify noncancer drugs that could improve cancer survival

By Diana Tonnessen
Yonghui Wu, Ph.D.

Yonghui Wu, Ph.D.

UF Health researchers sifting through millions of electronic health records found evidence that nine drugs already being used to treat other health conditions may also have the potential to improve cancer survival.

The researchers hope that with additional study, some of these drugs — currently used to treat noncancerous health conditions such as high cholesterol, acid reflux, hypertension and diabetes — could be repurposed as effective cancer treatments.

Cancer drug development is increasingly expensive and time consuming, according to Yonghui Wu, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics and a member of the UF Health Cancer Center. Developing a new cancer-treating drug can cost
anywhere from $648 million to $2.5 billion and take nine to 12 years before it is available on the market. Fewer than 8% of cancer drugs in development successfully make it to market, he said.

Because of the time and expense involved in successfully developing cancer treatment drugs, researchers have begun looking for alternative methods to speed the process. Drug repurposing has received much attention in recent years as one potential solution. Finding new uses for existing drugs has grown from an occasional practice to a mature technology owing to a better understanding of drugs’ mechanics and the accumulation of large amounts of biomedical and clinical data.

Wu said this novel method of drug discovery, reported in the May issue of the Journal of Clinical Cancer Informatics, sets up a new model for using electronic health records to identify drugs that hold promise for repurposing. The approach has the potential to save a significant amount of money and time.

By linking cancer registry data to electronic health records from Vanderbilt University, Wu’s team identified 22 drugs associated with improved cancer
survival. Nine of the 22 drug associations were replicated using electronic health record data from the Mayo Clinic.

“We found strong associations with improved overall cancer survival for patients who were using statins, proton pump inhibitors, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers
and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, and alpha-1 blockers during their cancer treatment,” Wu said.

Statins are commonly used to treat high blood cholesterol. ACE inhibitors, alpha blockers and beta blockers are used to treat high blood pressure, or
hypertension. Proton pump inhibitors reduce stomach acid and acid reflux, whereas NSAIDs relieve pain caused by inflammation.

The researchers then conducted a search of the medical literature and clinical trials to see if any published clinical studies supported their findings.

For a majority of the drugs they identified as possible treatments for cancer, existing studies from literature and clinical trials provided additional evidence to
support the findings.

Wu cautioned that more research is needed to further examine the drugs he and his team identified for possible use in cancer treatment. However, he has
full confidence in another of the study’s findings.

“Our study demonstrates that the use of electronic health records is feasible as a new resource to identify drugs that show promise for repurposing,” he said.