There are many treatment options for asbestos lung cancer. If the disease is at a certain stage, patients may be good candidates for surgery. Otherwise, they may undergo radiotherapy or receive any number of powerful chemotherapy drugs.
However, despite the diversity of options, researchers are still keen on finding more effective medications. While some scientists are trying to develop new drugs, others are exploring the effects of existing ones. One team from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies even went so far as to evaluate a a drug that is currently not available in the U.S.
Diabetes drug is too powerful
There is a class of diabetes medications known as biguanides, which experts describe as drugs that tell the liver to decrease its production of glucose. This effectively lowers one’s blood sugar levels.
Two well-known forms of biguanides are metformin and phenformin. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed phenformin from the market in 1978 because it was associated with a high prevalence of lactic acidosis. This condition is characterized by the buildup of lactic acid in the blood, which can cause nausea and weakness, as stated by the National Institutes of Health. The likelihood of this complication is especially high for individuals with compromised kidney function, but is not as problematic for cancer patients.
Phenformin shuts down cellular power plants
In addition to lowering glucose production by the liver, biguanides also attack the mitochondria of cells. These structures are responsible for producing the energy that cells need to live.
These effects of phenformin led the research team from the Salk Institute to ponder whether it may be useful for the treatment of cancer because of studies they had conducted on the gene LKB1. This gene is responsible for helping cells sense whether they are running low on energy. Without a functional LKB1 gene, cells are more likely to run out of energy and die.
According to the researchers, 30 percent of non-small cell lung cancer tumors lack a functional LKB1 gene.
In order to test the effects of phenformin on these tumor cells, the Salk Institute scientists conducted experiments on laboratory mouse models of early stage non-small cell lung cancer. They discovered that treatment with phenformin slowed the disease progression and increased the survival time for subjects who lacked working LKB1 genes, but not for mice with functional LKB1.
“The good news is that our work provides a basis to initiate human studies. If we can organize enough clinicians who believe in investigating phenformin – and many do – then phenformin as an anti-cancer agent could be a reality in the next several years,” said study co-author David Shackelford.
Ultimately, this may be an example of personalized medicine, in which doctors base their recommendations for treatment based on a patient’s genes in order to maximize the health benefits.
The National Cancer Institute characterizes non-small cell lung cancer as causing symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, cough with blood mucus, appetite loss, unexplained weight loss, fatigue and trouble swallowing. This disease is often associated with cigarette smoke, but asbestos exposure is also a risk factor.
The Environmental Working Group estimates that asbestos-induced lung cancer claims the lives of about 4,800 individuals in the U.S. every year. This figure is expected to increase for the next 10 years or so. This underscores the importance of developing better treatment strategies.
At Mesothelioma Circle, we’re excited to see these types of studies come out, and we’re hopeful that future patients will benefit.