Heart drug linked to extra years for cancer patients

A common heart drug called a beta blocker was associated with a striking increase in survival for women with ovarian cancer in a study that suggests a possible new strategy for treating a variety of tumors.

Researchers analyzing a database of 1,425 women with the tough-to-treat cancer found those who had taken a certain type of beta blocker lived more than four years longer on average than those who hadn’t been prescribed the drug. The women were taking the medicine to treat high blood pressure or another heart problem, not as part of their cancer treatment.

The study was retrospective, and thus wasn’t randomized, and had other important limitations, researchers said. Further research, which is under way, is necessary to determine whether the findings could be translated into a new treatment for the disease.

“It’s very interesting and very thought-provoking,” said Christina M. Annunziata, clinical director of the women’s malignancies branch of the Center for Cancer Research at the National Institutes of Health. “I don’t think it’s practice-changing quite yet.” Dr. Annunziata, who wasn’t involved in the study, co-authored an editorial accompanying the report, published in Cancer, a journal of the American Cancer Society.

More than 21,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, the cancer society estimates. More than 14,000 will die from it, making it the fifth most deadly cancer among women. Recurrence rates are high and there have been few advances made beyond standard chemotherapy in some 30 years.

Dr. Annunziata and the study authors cautioned that beta blockers have side effects and more research is needed to see if the drugs’ benefits outweigh risks for cancer patients.

In recent years, studies have shown that chronic stress promotes the growth and spread of ovarian and other cancers. One way is by stimulating so-called fight-or-flight hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine, said Anil Sood, professor of gynecologic oncology and cancer biology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and senior author of the new report. Beta blockers can mitigate stress but previous studies that looked at their effect on ovarian cancer have been mixed.

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