News / Science & Technology

Scientists Find New Uses for Old Drugs

(File) This image from 1967 shows a child whose deformity was attributed to thalidomide taken by his mother. Scientists now say the drug could help combat a rare form of blood cancer.
(File) This image from 1967 shows a child whose deformity was attributed to thalidomide taken by his mother. Scientists now say the drug could help combat a rare form of blood cancer.
Jessica Berman
Even as scientists work to develop new medications, many rarely prescribed, or even forgotten, drugs are making a comeback, being used to treat illnesses they weren't originally designed for.

“It is a very easy way to explore whether something that is therapeutically beneficial in one area and for one type of patient might be useful for another type of patient," said Aris Persidis, president and co-founder of  biotechnology company Biovista. "And the difference in our thinking is, 'To date, this is done by accident.  Wouldn't it be great if this could be done systematically?”

Drug repurposing

Developing a brand new drug can take 10 years or more, and costs in excess of $1 billion, according Persidis, which is why Biovista is studying new uses for safe compounds that have been supplanted by newer or better formulations and are no longer prescribed. The concept is called drug repurposing.

Persidis says researchers use a huge database to identify drugs or experimental compounds developed for one illness that might be used to treat other conditions.

“There's about 90,000 drugs and drug-like compounds at any point in time in total that we have mapped against all 29,000 clinical outcomes of interest known to modern medicine," he said. "And we call this the clinical outcome, 'search space,' simply because it enables us to transverse any indication in any drug or any combination of these things as is relevant to a patient.”

Biovista has identified an anti-depressant that has proven effective against multiple sclerosis. The company is moving forward with that, and with other repurposed compounds to treat epilepsy, a deadly form of skin cancer called melanoma, and thyroid cancer.

Comeback for baby defects drug

Then there is thalidomide. Before it was banned in 1962, the anti-nausea drug was given to thousands of women early in their pregnancies.  It caused horrific birth defects - as many as 20,000 babies worldwide were born with shortened arms that looked like seal flippers.

But researchers who continued to study the drug found in the 1990s that the compound caused the remission of a rare type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma. However, they also noted that the cancer eventually returned.

At New York’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, scientists discovered that thalidomide kills myeloma cells through a different mechanism than the one that causes birth defects. They also learned why it stops working against cancer, a discovery that could pave the way for an effective anti-cancer treatment. 

"The immediate impact is we now know how these drugs work that may help in terms of their further clinical development," said researcher William Kaelin, who heads a team investigating thalidomide compounds. "Now, a number of other cancer proteins that we think of as being undruggable might be attacked.  So I think hopefully we can go back to this playbook over and over.”

Kaelin is looking forward to a new era of drug development.

“I am most excited about the possibility of better thalidomides and other drugs that basically borrow from the thalidomide paradigm,” he said.

With tens of thousands of drugs waiting to be considered for repurposing, the possibilities for new, unexpected therapies are endless.

You May Like

Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, confined narrowly to independence movements in process of de-colonization More

Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Annual Military Exercise Takes on New Meaning for Ukraine Troops

Troops from 15 nations participating in annual event, 'Rapid Trident' in western Ukraine More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid