Alcohol drug found to be effective against lung cancer

Dr Martin Barr, School of Medicine, TCD, whose team has found that the anti-alcohol abuse drug, Antabuse, is effective against lung cancer

The FDA-approved alcohol aversion drug, disulfiram (Antabuse), has been found to be very effective in combating chemotherapy resistance in lung cancer.

Scientists based at TCD and St James’s Hospital, Dublin, have reported the finding for the most common type of lung cancer – non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) – in the journal Oncotarget.

“Disulfiram is an already approved drug will well tolerated side effects which can be taken orally,” said Dr Martin Barr, Adjust Assistant Professor and a lead investigator in the Thoracic Oncology Research Group, based at TCD and St James’s. 

“Its potential use may give chemotherapeutic drugs such as cisplatin, a new lease of life in the treatment of resistant drug tumours,” Dr Barr added.

Antabuse has been used to treat alcohol addiction for over 60 years and works by restricting the activity of aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) the main enzyme involved in removing alcohol from the body.

It works by preventing the body from metabolising alcohol, and so the person consuming alcohol will start to feel sick.

Antabuse has now been also found – also by inhibiting ALDH – to decrease tumour cell growth and increase the body’s killing action against lung cancer stem cells. The killing of cancer stem cells is important, because this can prevent the cancer from recurring.

The scientists at TCD and St James’s, working with the Cancer Stem Cell Group at the Coombe Hospital, Dublin, found that lung cancer cells that have high levels of ALDH activity – which is a marker for the presence of cancer stem cells, – become resistant to chemotherapy.

This resistance means that cancer cells can survive chemotherapy and may explain why a large number of lung cancer patients receiving certain types of chemotherapy suffer a relapse in their cancer afterwards.

The development of new drugs is an expensive, time consuming business, and cancer scientists have begun to assess drugs already approved to treat non cancer illness such as Antabuse, for their effectiveness against cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide and accounts for more deaths than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined. In Ireland there are more than 2,300 new cases of lung cancer per year and over 1,800 deaths.