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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More