Drug Used To Treat Cocaine Addiction Emerges As Powerful Colorectal Cancer Therapy

OTTAWA, Ontario — Researchers at the University of Ottawa may have uncovered an unexpected yet powerful weapon against advanced colorectal cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease often called a “silent killer.” Their study reveals that the experimental drug vanoxerine, originally developed to treat cocaine addiction, could help fight this aggressive cancer.

Vanoxerine packs a potent one-two punch against colorectal cancer stem cells – the cells that drive tumor growth and spread, scientists say. The drug works in two ways: by interfering with a protein that transports dopamine and by suppressing an enzyme called G9a.

Colorectal cancer develops when cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control and form tumors. It’s identified as a “silent killer” because early-stage colorectal cancer frequently has no symptoms, causing the disease to advance before being detected. According to recent statistics, it is the second most common cause of cancer deaths globally. Alarmingly, rates in younger adults are rising sharply.

Since colorectal cancer is often diagnosed late, treatment options are limited. That’s why discovering new therapies to target advanced colorectal tumors is so critical. When cancer stem cells are present, the disease tends to be aggressive and hard to treat. The Ottawa team wanted to find a way to selectively kill those cells.

💡Symptoms Of Colorectal Cancer:

  • Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation lasting for several days
  • Feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one
  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • Blood in the stool, which might make the stool look dark brown or black
  • Cramping or belly pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

In extensive lab testing on tissue samples from colorectal cancer patients, vanoxerine showed potent effects against cancer stem cells. Not only did it suppress tumor growth initially, but it also seemed to boost the immune system detection of cancer cells – helping prevent the disease from recurring.

“Notably, the tumors treated with vanoxerine become more susceptible to attack by the immune system due to the reactivation of ancient viral DNA fragments accumulated in our genome throughout evolution. This finding is quite significant, considering that colorectal tumors tend to show poor response to standard immunotherapy,” says Dr. Yannick Benoit, the study’s principal investigator and an associate professor at the university, in a statement.

3D Rendered Medical Illustration of Male Anatomy showing Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer develops when cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control and form tumors. (© SciePro – stock.adobe.com)

Benoit says the research presents “a safe way to eliminate cancer stem cells in colorectal tumors without harming the ‘good stem cells’ in the body’s organs.” In their findings, they observed minimal toxicity from vanoxerine treatments when testing in healthy human and mouse tissues.

While prevention and early screening remain imperative, the study brings new optimism to those already facing late-stage colorectal cancer.

“For those unfortunate people diagnosed with advanced and aggressive forms of colorectal cancer, we profoundly hope our work can lead to the development of powerful options for treatment in the future and substantially increase their survival chances,” says Dr. Benoit.

If further studies continue yielding positive results, vanoxerine could potentially provide oncologists with a vital new tool to beat colorectal cancer. Dr. Benoit and his team’s unexpected discovery could be life-saving for millions if that happens.

The research is published in the journal Nature Cancer.


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