Science & Research

Drugs with potential

One of the primary goals of the Centre for Pharmacoepidemiology and Vaccine Research, located within the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine, is to determine whether commonly used drugs possess unknown cancer-fighting properties.

The medications to be put under the microscope, so to speak, include everything from drugs already used for treating certain types of cancer to common cures found in your medicine cabinet. Here is a look at some well-known drugs that could potentially have other uses:


This class of cholesterol-reducing drugs is widely used by our aging population to prevent heart disease. Belonging to a class of pharmaceutical called HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, statins block the production of enzymes that play a central role in cholesterol production in the liver. Statins are already a form of preventive medicine since they lower cholesterol, and high blood cholesterol is linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. But Dr. Salah Mahmud says statins also have anti-inflammatory properties, so their use may prevent some forms of cancer. In fact, some studies have found statins may reduce the incidence of colon cancer.


Both of these drugs are used for the treatment of advanced-stage breast cancer, but they may help prevent breast cancer, too. "These drugs would be restricted to women who are very high risk who have the genetic mutation of BRCA1 or BRCA2," Mahmud says. Women with certain mutations in these genes are at a 50 per cent increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. As a result, many women who find out they have these mutations undergo preventive mastectomies, as the actress Angelina Jolie did recently. "The idea is that rather than getting a mastectomy, a woman could use these drugs instead."

M5-Alpha Reductase Inhibitors

This class of drugs has primarily been used to treat benign prostate hypertrophy, a common problem among older men, but has also been used to combat alopecia, also known as male pattern baldness. More recently, two of the major types of this medication - finasteride (marketed as Propecia and Proscar) and dutasteride (sold as Avodart) - were shown in clinical trials to reduce prostate cancer risk by 25 per cent. But there is a catch. Studies also suggest that the men who did develop prostate cancer despite taking these medications ended up with a more aggressive form of prostate cancer. Mahmud's team is investigating the theory.


Researchers are investigating whether selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Paxil and Prozac, may have properties that prevent cancer. Although some antidepressants have been linked to increased risk of death from breast cancer for women receiving chemotherapy, some studies suggest these drugs may reduce the incidence of colon cancer. Mahmud says a study on the subject is already underway and will continue at the centre, but for the time being, the jury is still out.


The drug that is infamous for causing birth defects may actually help treat cancer, he says. "Even a terrible drug like that might have very good uses." Studies are underway to determine if thalidomide is a suitable treatment for Kaposi's sarcoma (related to HIV infection), malignant melanoma (skin), renal cell carcinoma and prostate cancer.

Asprin and other NSAIDs

Aspirin belongs to a class of anti-inflammatory medications called non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs - or NSAIDs. Although Mahmud says they've already found Aspirin reduces colon and prostate cancer risks, it's also thought that other NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen may do the same. These drugs will also be another area of focus at the centre.

Wave: Summer 2013

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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