It’s long been used to fight alcoholism. But this drug kills cancer, too, study finds

Disulfiram, sometimes called Antabuse, is an anti-drinking drug that could fight cancer in addition to alcoholism, a new study found.
Disulfiram, sometimes called Antabuse, is an anti-drinking drug that could fight cancer in addition to alcoholism, a new study found. AP

For years, the drug has been given to alcoholics.

If alcoholics drink even a little liquor after taking disulfiram (commercially sold as Antabuse) a tidal wave of unpleasant symptoms will wash over them: Everything from throbbing head pain to vomiting, from chest pain to anxiety. Even choking could result, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with symptoms starting to crop up within 10 minutes of drinking.

So while disulfiram can’t cure alcoholism, the drug works by making even a drop of alcohol hurt — which hopefully discourages drinking.

But now, scientists say the drug has another promising use: Cancer fighting.

Disulfiram cut the risk of death in a host of Danish patients suffering from colon, prostate and breast tumors, according to a new study published Dec. 6 in the scientific journal Nature. That means the drug could have a promising second life as a cancer fighter, researchers said.

The researchers demonstrated the link between disulfiram and cancer by comparing two groups of people. First, the researchers looked at patients who kept using disulfiram after they were diagnosed with cancer. Then, they compared that group with patients who stopped using the anti-drinking drug after they were diagnosed, researchers said.

What researchers found was that those who kept using the drug after their cancer diagnosis cut their risk of death 34 percent, Science Magazine reports.

Jiri Bartek of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen authored the Nature study. He and his fellow researchers examined the medical histories of cancer patients throughout Denmark to complete the research, according to the study.

Just as important, researchers were able to pinpoint the exact molecule that the drug operates on to effectively fight cancer: The scientists found that in mice, the anti-drinking drug immobilized NPL4–p97, a natural protein grouping that boosts the growth of tumors, according to the study.

But if you can immobilize that protein group, researchers found, you can help kill the cancer cells. That’s exactly what disulfiram does, researchers said.

Scientists first discovered the link between disulfiram and cancer in the 1970s, Science Magazine reports, but until now it hadn’t gotten much attention — in part because no one was quite sure how the drug was working.

“This paper solves a puzzle that has persisted in cancer research for decades,” cancer biologist Michele Pagano, a cancer biologist at New York University who was not involved in the study, told Science Magazine.

So is there hope for redesigning the drug for cancer treatments?

It’s a good question, but it’s complicated.

“Big pharma probably won’t be interested,” study author Bartek told Science Magazine, explaining that there’s no patent protection for the relatively old drug — meaning that pharmaceutical companies couldn’t cash in on developing a new use for it.

But that doesn’t meant that doctors couldn’t start using it as a relatively cheap treatment for cancers, Science Magazine reports.

Other research this year has also pointed to the anti-drinking drug as a promising cancer-fighting alternative.

Researching lung cancer patients for a study published in October, scientists at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland found that disulfiram cut down tumor cell growth while also killing lung cancer stem cells.

Irish researchers pointed to disulfiram as a way to supplement traditional chemotherapy, because the study showed combining the two therapies was significantly more effective at tackling lung cancer that chemotherapy alone

Researchers pointed out that repurposing older, existing drugs has many advantages.

“The development of novel anti-cancer drugs against various malignant tumours is both time-consuming and expensive and involves pre-clinical and clinical testing,” said Dr. Lauren MacDonagh, who carried out the study, in a statement. “Finding new uses for existing drugs, otherwise known as ‘repurposing’, may allow for new uses of an old drug that may lead to the discovery of new treatments.”