Medical research

Anti-drink drug fights another deadly scourge

How an old standby for fighting alcohol dependence blitzes cancer cells.

A drug that helps people to overcome alcohol dependence cuts the risk of death from a host of cancers, including tumours of the colon, prostate and breast.

Developing new cancer drugs is costly and time-consuming. A promising alternative is to repurpose drugs that have already been approved to treat other conditions.

Jiri Bartek at the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen and his colleagues studied the records of people with cancer across Denmark. They discovered that individuals who continued taking disulfiram — a long-established alcohol-aversion drug marketed as Antabuse — after their cancer diagnosis had a lower risk of death than those who stopped taking the drug.

Further work showed that, in mice, disulfiram is metabolized into a molecule that immobilizes NPL4–p97, a naturally occuring protein grouping that supports tumour growth. Putting the complex out of action kills cancer cells.

The authors highlight the p97–NPL4 pathway as a promising therapeutic target, and suggest that disulfiram, which is cheap and safe, could help in the treatment of patients whose tumours resist other chemotherapy.