Scientists are uncovering more evidence that a common cardiac medication, the beta blocker, can help fight cancer. The latest study appeared Monday in the journal Cancer and was led by Dr. Anil Sood, an MD Anderson professor who specializes in ovarian cancer and cancer biology.
Doctors have known for years that stress and stress hormones actually spur the cancer on, Sood said, but turning that knowledge into clinical interventions has been more difficult.
“Very consistently we find that the fight-or-flight hormones can stimulate both cancer growth as well as the spread of cancer,” he said.
Beta blockers are drugs that block the effects of stress hormones — and therefore help people with high blood pressure and other conditions. Sood, along with researchers at three other hospitals in the U.S., conducted a retrospective study to see if these drugs were also helping women with ovarian cancer. The study involved combing through medical records, looking at ovarian cancer patients who happened to be taking beta blockers for other reasons, and those who weren’t.
After crunching the numbers, the study authors concluded that some beta blockers are associated with longer survival after an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
“We were obviously very excited to see these kinds of results,” Sood said.
But not just any beta blocker helped these patients — it was a specific type known as a nonselective beta blocker (NSBB).
Patients taking that type of drug survived almost twice as long as other ovarian cancer patients.
Their median survival was almost eight years, versus three and a half years for the patients not taking any beta blocker.
Despite these “exciting” findings, it’s too soon to change current treatment recommendations for ovarian cancer, said Dr. Aparna Kamat, a gynecologic oncologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. (Kamat was not involved in this study but did take part in some preclinical research related to it.)
Kamat pointed out that Sood’s study looked at 1,425 patient records. The most dramatic result was found in the patients who were taking the nonspecific beta blockers, but that was only 75 women. To see if that correlation holds, more research is necessary, she said. Another weakness of the retrospective study was the fact that Sood and other authors could not determine the dosage or the duration of betablocker treatment, all of which may have clinical implications, according to Kamat.
Sood agreed that more clinical studies are needed, but said this particular study offers hope that beta blockers, which are relatively inexpensive drugs, could be added to the oncologist’s toolkit.
“We don’t view these kind of drugs as replacing conventional therapies, but our hope is that, rather, they could be used in addition to conventional chemotherapy as well as surgical type of treatments,” Sood explained.
Sood says he’s already working on a feasibility trial testing the safety of purposely giving beta blockers to women with ovarian cancer, even if they don’t need them to control blood pressure or other health issues.