Drugs previously used to fight epilepsy could treat cancer

Posted by Anne-Marie on March 21, 2016

Get A-Head and QEHB Charity have launched a £1 million appeal, with the University of Birmingham, to fund a new programme giving cancer patients access to new drugs quicker than anywhere else in the country, through the reallocation of drugs originally created to treat other illnesses.

Drug development through pharmaceutical companies using the conventional approaches can take up to 15 years before they reach patients, and have a 90% failure rate.

Due to these difficulties, a team of eager researchers at the University of Birmingham decided to set up an accelerated drug treatment programme, using drugs originally licences for other indications, in order to look into and identify if these drugs could be used as treatments in the field of head and neck cancer.  As the majority of drugs used so far have all been out of patent, the cost of a course of a potential treatment would be dramatically reduced.

By working with a team at the Institute of Head and Neck Studies and Education (InHANSE), led by Professor Hisham Mehanna, Chair of Head and Neck Surgery, patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham could receive new treatments within the next two years, speeding up the process of recovery for patients and cutting the cost to the NHS.*

Your donations have helped fund a Get A-Head Research Technician, Baksho Kaul, and a QEHB Charity Research Fellow, Nikos Batis.  Nikos is running and analysing the data from hundreds of experiments that the team undertakes to find out if re-purposed drugs can be used to treat certain types of cancer, Baksho works alongside Nikos in the laboratory.

Nikos and Baksho

Baksho Kaul – Research Technician & Nikos Batis – Research Fellow

Whilst head and neck and thyroid cancer is the 7th most common cancer in the UK, it does not feature in the list of top fifteen most-funded cancers in terms of research, meaning that research into head and neck cancer is poorly supported in the UK. Your donations have been spent on research that is truly ground-breaking and desperately required.

Nikos, a 33-year-old who has studied and lived in Birmingham for the past 13 years, joined the programme after completing a PhD in Pharmacology and Neuroscience. Always interested in discovering new uses for drugs, Nikos applied his passion to cancer, joining the Accelerated drugs programme at the QE, hoping that re-purposed drugs can be used to treat cancer.

He said; “Cancer is indiscriminate.  It affects people of all ages and all races and indirectly, the patients loved ones.  This appeal is about speeding up treatment by matching existing drugs, which have already been approved in other conditions like arthritis, to cancers where they have not been tried before.

“If this programme is successful, it means that patients won’t have to wait up to 15 years to receive brand-new drugs, the current 90% failure rate will be avoided and the half-a-billion pound spend will be dramatically reduced.

“Drugs that have been used to fight cholesterol or epilepsy, for example, could help fight cancer – we just need to test them out, which is why we need your support.”

Since the program began two and a half years ago the team has made exciting discoveries.

Nikos explained: “We have now reached a point where we have screened thousands of drugs. What’s more, we have established that nine of these drugs have shown strong results against cancer cells in the laboratory. The results are so strong that we are now planning to start human clinical studies in people suffering from cancer, to prove how effective they are against cancer.

“We also received positive feedback from presenting some of this work in the British Pharmacology Society conference in London. We were further able to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies, by utilising some of the drugs in their pipeline to take them through various stages of our platform and sharing the data back with them to help our processes being further validated. Feedback from peer-reviews at the conference also highlighted other people’s interest in using our programme to test their own drugs.” 

Baksho, a 31-year-old from Wolverhampton, stated: “Without donations to Get A-Head and QEHB Charity, we wouldn’t be able to progress; we wouldn’t be able to do the research that we are doing. Our work relies on charitable grants and donations so we are incredibly grateful to everyone who has made, and is helping to make, this vital work possible.”

If the team can prove that re-purposed drugs can be used to treat head and neck cancers, the programme can be rolled out to test other cancers, including thyroid, oesophageal cancer and lung cancer.

Nikos added: “The patient benefit in this case is huge. If we can prove that these drugs can be used to successfully treat head and neck as well as different types of cancer, patients will have faster access to drugs that are safer than current methods of treatment, like chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The cost to the NHS will be reduced and we will be closer to finding a cure for cancer, for good.”

QEHB Charity, in partnership with Get-A-Head, is fundraising to provide Nikos and Baksho with funding for a further two years. During this time, they hope to test more drugs, proving that re-purposed drugs can be used to treat head and neck cancer. If these trials are successful, the team will roll the programme out to treat other types of the disease.

Baksho added: “Please help us raise the £1 million we need to match existing drugs, which have already been approved in other conditions such as arthritis, to cancers where they have not been tried before.

“If everyday drugs do have an effect on cancer cells, they will be cheap to produce and easy to supply, enabling patients to receive them quicker.”

To donate, please contact 0121 371 5046.

*The drug discovery platform, called ‘Accelerated’, primarily focuses on re-purposed drugs; however novel drugs have also been included as possibilities. The platform is delivered in four main stages. In stage 1, tests are used to screen a library of drugs for efficacy against head and neck cancer (HNC) reproduction. In stage 2, any potential hits are validated further using additional tests such as clonogenic ( a cell biology technique for studying the effectiveness of specific agents on the survival of cells) and cell cycle tests in established HNC cell lines. Successful drug candidates then enter stage 3, in which animal models are used to evaluate safety and to obtain full PK profiles. Finally, in stage 4 lead compounds are taken into early phase clinical trials.