Scientists may not have found a cure for cancer yet, but these five drugs could be the next best things:
Denosumab—a human monoclonal antibody developed by Amgen—targets RANKL, a protein essential for bone cell formation and normal function. In June, the drug, whose brand name is Prolia, was approved to treat osteoporosis. New research shows that the drug could also be effective against breast cancer.
Scientists have found that the RANKL protein appears to play more than a role in bone formation; it may also be activated by progesterone to cause breast cancer. Amgen scientists discovered that blocking the protein in mice, “blocks mammary tumour formation via a direct effect on mammary epithelia,” the researchers wrote in the journal Nature. Denosumab is currently in a Phase 3 clinical trial in breast cancer patients—a separate trial is also examining the drug’s potential in patients with other types of metastatic cancer.
Aptocine, developed by Light Sciences Oncology in Bellevue Washington, is a drug that includes a tiny array of LED lights. In a procedure similar to a biopsy, the array is inserted into the tumor. The drug is then injected into the body. When light is directed at the array, this activates the drug (Check out an animation of how the drug works).
Aptocine does not cause the severe side effects associated with traditional chemotherapy and radiation therapies because it destroys tumors from the inside out. Phase 3 trials have been completed for liver cancer and colorectal cancer that has metastasized to the liver. The drug is now in clinical trials for benign prostatic hyperplasia, and it is being developed for the treatment of at least nine other cancers.
Pfizer’s Crizotinib targets a protein called anaplastic lymphoma kinase, or ALK for short, that is part of a pathway in the body that scientists believe to be important for cancer cell survival. Not all patients carry the mutation, but for those who do the drug could be a more effective alternative to chemotherapy, and it may prolong survival.
Crizotinib is in Phase 3 trials for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. In a presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, researchers showed astounding preliminary results. Crizotinib shrunk tumors by more than ninety percent.
Imetelstat—a drug made by Menlo Park, CA-based Geron—targets telomerase, which is an enzyme that plays a role in cell aging. Cancer cells have more telomerase than normal cells, which enables the cancer cells to survive. Scientists believe that by blocking telomerase, imetelstat will kill cancer cells without harming normal cells resulting in fewer side effects compared to chemotherapy.
In preliminary studies, imetelstat was shown to be effective against breast, prostate and lung cancers. Phase 2 trials of imetelstat began in July for non-small cell lung cancer. “We are excited…Maintenance therapy with a telomerase inhibitor is an attractive approach to potentially reduce the cancer stem cell population after initial debulking of the tumor by chemotherapy,” lead investigator Joan Schiller said in a press release.
Unlike the above four drugs, metformin is not new. It is currently prescribed for people with type 2 diabetes, but new research shows it may be able to do much more than control blood sugar. Recently, a team of researchers in the United Kingdom reported an association between metformin use and cancer risk. Their review, published in the journal Diabetes Care, looked at several thousand diabetics over a period of a few years. Of those individuals taking metformin, seven percent were diagnosed with cancer compared to eleven percent who had not taken the drug.
Previous studies in animals have shown that metformin can delay the onset of tumors and reduce the incidence of pancreatic cancer. The researchers believe the decreased incidence of cancer is due to metformin’s regulation of a protein called AMPK. This protein manages insulin levels in diabetics, but also inhibits tumor growth. They concluded that there is “sufficient epidemiological evidence that metformin reduces the risk of cancer to make further investigation a high priority.”