Breast Cancer

Cold and Flu Medicines Might Be Cancer Fighters, too

You start to get the runny nose and cough that signal a coming cold. So, you head to RiteAid and grab some cold and flu medicine, leery of its potential effectiveness. While such medicines may or may not help your cold, they may have a far greater value — preventing the growth of cancer cells.

Whoa. Who cares about the cold?

Researchers recently reported that a medication called N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) seems to help prevent growth of cancer cells by depriving them of proteins that they need for their survival.

The findings were reported in October in the journal Seminars in Oncology.

What is NAC? 

N-Acetylcysteine is an over-the-counter medication and dietary supplement commonly used to help alleviate some cold and flu symptoms. NAC can also be used to treat acetaminophen overdose, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It has some antioxidant properties.

The study

The study was performed at the School of Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. It was co-authored by Professors Federica Sotgia and Michael Lisanti. The team noted that previous research had identified high levels of oxidative stress in the stromal cells of tumors, particularly breast cancer tumors. Stromal cells make up connective tissue in the tumors. When these cells are exposed to oxidative stress they release lactate and other nutrients needed for cancer cells to thrive.

This led the research team at Salford to theorize that the antioxidant properties of NAC might help “starve” cancer cells of these nutrients. The goal was to see if an inexpensive drug that was already approved by the FDA, albeit for treating cold and flu symptoms, could be put to use fighting cancer cells.

To test their theory, the researchers conducted a trial on 12 women who had a stage 0 or stage 1 diagnosis of breast cancer and were awaiting surgery. For three weeks before their surgery, the women received NAC. It was administered intravenously at a dose of 150 milligrams per kilogram once weekly. On the other days of the week, the subjects received a twice-daily dose orally of 600 milligrams.

Biopsies of each woman’s breast cancer tumor were taken prior to and during surgery. These samples were analyzed for three biomarkers of cancer aggressiveness: MCT4, CAV1, and Ki67.

The numbers were impressive. Levels of Ki67 in the tumors had reduced by 25 percent, while levels of MCT4 were reduced by 80 percent.

Dr. Lisanti explained, “High levels of stromal MCT4 are extremely worrying, as they are linked to aggressive cancer behavior and poor overall survival.”

The study, although on only a small number of subjects, merits further examination of NAC and cancer. The findings indicate that treatment with NAC could be an inexpensive, non-toxic way to stop cancer cell growth and division.

“Our idea was to repurpose an inexpensive FDA-approved drug, to examine if its antioxidant properties could target the feeding behavior of cancer cells,” the study states. “To be able to inhibit MCT4 protein expression, in a non-toxic way, is a huge step forward.”

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