Anti-parasitic drug offers hope for pancreatic cancer

Mebendazole, originally intended to eradicate roundworm and hookworm, appears to have a similar effect on cancer cells.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read August 5, 2021
pancreatic cancer

The disease occurs when cells in the pancreas undergo a change that alters the way they grow and behave. Getty

An anti-parasitic drug has shown the ability to stop pancreatic cancer in its tracks, preventing the initiation, progression and spread of the disease in genetically engineered mice.

The groundbreaking research, published in the journal Oncotarget, used two different mouse models to confirm the drug mebendazole was effective at slowing or stopping the growth and spread of the early and late stages of one of the most lethal cancers in the world. “We think that mebendazole could have a role in all stages,” said Gregory Riggins, professor of neurosurgery and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It was particularly effective for pancreatic cancer that was detected early.”

The disease, which claimed the life of beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek last November, occurs when cells in the pancreas undergo a change that alters the way they grow and behave, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. If these changes give rise to cancer, malignant tumours can form and destroy surrounding tissue before potentially spreading to other parts of the body. Around 6,000 Canadians were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020 with roughly 5,300 succumbing to the disease. The five-year survival rate in Canada is just eight per cent.

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms — which include jaundice, abdominal or upper back pain, unexplained weight loss and fatigue, among others — may not be present in the early stages, only arriving once tumours begin to have an effect on the body. Signs of the aggressive cancer can also vary depending on the precise location of tumours, making diagnosis a frustrating ordeal for patients.

In an attempt to improve the odds of the deadly disease, researchers gave mebendazole to mice that were engineered to develop pancreatic cancer while measuring inflammation levels, tissue change and the stage, grade and metastatic status of any tumours. The drug, which was originally intended to eradicate roundworm and hookworm by starving the parasitic infections of sustenance, appears to have a similar effect on cancer cells. Mebendazole works by halting the production of tubulin — a micro-skeleton of the inner cell and a pathway used for transport — causing parasites and cancer cells to begin to collapse from within.

The vast potential of the drug on all stages of pancreatic cancer has Riggins and his team eager to begin human trials as soon as possible.

“We are advocating for use of mebendazole as a therapy for those diagnosed before metastasis to see if we can slow or prevent pancreatic cancer,” he said. “For those with more advanced cancers, it could be an alternative to certain surgeries. Mebendazole may have utility as a therapy after initial treatment to prevent tumour recurrence in the 15 to 20 per cent of pancreatic adenocarcinoma patients who undergo surgery.

“It may also increase the durability of response to standard chemotherapy in the remaining 80 to 85 per cent of patients with advanced disease.”

For more information on pancreatic cancer, support or to connect with other patients, visit Pancreatic Cancer Canada, Wellspring, or the Canadian Cancer Society.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer



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