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Anti-malaria drug could help fight tumours

Atovaquone proves effective in wide range of cancers

Adrian O'Dowd

Monday, 25 July 2016

Doctors may be able to use the anti-malarial drug atovaquone alongside radiotherapy to help fight tumours in cancer patients more effectively, according to a study* published today in Nature Communications.

The study, carried out at the Cancer Research UK Radiation Research Centre in Oxford, looked at the effect of the drug atovaquone on tumours with low oxygen levels in mice to see if it could be repurposed to treat cancer.

Tumours with low oxygen levels are more difficult to treat successfully with radiotherapy and are more likely to spread to other parts of the body.

Researchers found that the anti-malaria drug slowed down the rate at which cancer cells used oxygen by targeting the mitochondria and by slowing down the use of oxygen, the drug reversed the low-oxygen levels in nearly all of the tumours.

These fully-oxygenated tumours were then more easily destroyed by radiotherapy.

Atovaquone was shown to be effective in a wide range of cancers, including lung, bowel, brain, and head and neck cancer. This older medicine is no longer patented and is cheap and easily available from generic medicines manufacturers.

Lead author Professor Gillies McKenna at the Cancer Research UK/Medical Research Council Institute for Radiation Oncology in Oxford, said: “This is an exciting result. We have now started a clinical trial in Oxford to see if we can show the same results in cancer patients.

“We hope that this existing low cost drug will mean that resistant tumours can be re-sensitised to radiotherapy. We’re using a drug that we already know is safe.”

Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager, said: “The types of cancer that tend to have oxygen deprived regions are often more difficult to treat - such as lung, bowel, brain and head and neck cancer.

“Looking at the cancer-fighting properties of existing medicines is a very important area of research where medical charities can make a big impact and is a priority for Cancer Research UK. Clinical trials will tell us whether this drug could help improve treatment options for patients with these types of tumour.”

* Ashton TM, et al. The anti-malarial atovaquone increases radiosensitivity by alleviating tumour hypoxia. Nature Communications 7, article number: 12308, published 25 July 2016. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12308

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