Monash research finds heart drug can reduce breast cancer progression

man on couch with hand on chest

Good news. That is what’s required in the fight against cancer, especially since estimates show that more than 2500 cancer diagnoses were missed during the COVID-19 lockdowns in Victoria between April and November 2020. There was a 37 per cent drop in breast cancer screenings alone in April and May, and border closures meant blood cancer patients didn’t receive stem cells used in treatment from overseas.

Now, in collaboration with a team from the Cancer Registry of Norway, researchers at Monash University have discovered that carvedilol, a beta-blocker used to manage heart conditions, can “greatly reduce” breast cancer progression. The researchers found that if women were taking carvedilol when they were diagnosed, “they had a greater chance of survival than those not taking the drug”.

Breast cancer kills 3000 women a year in Australia.

Associate Professor Erica Sloan, who has explored the use of other beta-blockers, said: “It’s an exciting finding that shows a cardiac drug that’s currently being used in cancer patients to treat chemotherapy-induced heart disease actually could also help slow or stop their cancer.”

Her earlier research found that the beta-blocker propranolol reduced biomarkers of metastasis in breast cancer, which led her to investigate how carvedilol might be repurposed to significantly improve patient outcomes.

Read more: Never ignore these cancer symptoms

Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) researcher Ryan Gillis, who is the study’s lead author, said: “We discovered that treatment with carvedilol blocked the effects of sympathetic nervous system activation, reducing primary tumour growth and metastasis in a mouse model of breast cancer and prevented invasion by breast cancer cell lines.

“In a large cohort of breast cancer patients, a retrospective analysis found that women using carvedilol at breast cancer diagnosis had reduced breast cancer-specific mortality compared to women who did not (after a median follow-up of 5.5 years),” said Mr Gillis.

“In terms of next steps, we believe these findings provide a rationale to further explore the use of carvedilol as a novel strategy to slow cancer progression.”

The next steps in the research could include a clinical trial.

Read more: Jump in cancer diagnoses

In August last year, Victorian Cancer Registry director Professor Sue Evans said the huge drop off in breast cancer screenings during the pandemic could have an impact later.

“The concern is that if people are not getting tested, particularly if they’re symptomatic, that they may be presenting further down the path with more advanced disease,” she said.

“Obviously, the more advanced the disease, the more difficult it is to treat and the poorer the survival.”

Modelling in the UK, at the same time, estimated 3621 additional people could die from breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer or oesophageal cancer there over the next five years.

The Victorian Cancer Registry found there were 5446 fewer pathology notifications, used for life-saving cancer screening, than expected during Victoria’s long 2020 pandemic lockdowns, a drop of about 10 per cent on the previous year. Just 1100 mammograms were performed nationwide in April 2020, compared to 70,000 the month before – a drop of 98 per cent. There was a 30 per cent drop in mammograms nationally from January to June, with about 344,000 tests conducted compared to around 489,000 in the same period two years prior. Such figures led to fears of a ‘surge’ in delayed diagnoses and avoidable deaths.

“The health impacts of coronavirus itself are going to be way less than the impacts on other health issues induced by the COVID response,” Victorian COVID-19 Cancer Network chair Grant McArthur told Nine.

“We are anticipating we will see cancers that are much more advanced and a greater number over the next 12 months as well as significant increase in cancer diagnoses.”

Read more: New melanoma treatment a ‘game-changer’

Prof. Evans expects a cancer “spike” in the next six to 12 months, as later stage cancers are diagnosed.

“Our modelling indicates it’s possible that approximately 2500 Victorians will not only be faced with the prospect of being diagnosed with cancer, but with a later stage cancer than they possibly may have been, and this would be devastating for patients, families and loved ones,” Prof. Evans told Nine.

There was a 30 per cent drop in life-saving cancer diagnostic procedures in 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.

Prof. McArthur said more than 1000 cases of prostate cancer were missed.

“We’re worried about that because of the sheer numbers,” he said.

He also expects an influx of cancer patients in the next year.

He said doctors expected to see more advanced melanomas because Australians had missed skin checks during the pandemic.

Did you delay screening procedures or tests during 2020? Have you caught up with any overdue procedures?

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Written by Will Brodie

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