Viagra could kill cancer cells and make chemo more effective, scientists find

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DRUGS that are commonly used to treat tens of millions of men with erectile dysfunction may also help boost cancer survival rates.

Researchers have found that phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), a chemical found in Viagra, can help shrink tumors found in the esophagus.

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Esophageal cancer has much poorer outcomes and treatment options than other cancersCredit: Getty – Contributor

The little blue pill can even make chemotherapy more effective in those who are resistant to treatment.

It is hoped that the drug will also help kill other cancers.

There are around 7,900 esophageal cancer deaths in the UK each year, or 22 deaths per day.

Those who develop the cancer have only about a 20% chance of surviving beyond five years.

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Esophageal cancer affects the food pipe that connects your mouth to your stomach.

Currently, this disease has much poorer outcomes and treatment options than other cancers.

Part of the reason is that cancer can be resistant to chemotherapy, explained lead author Professor Tim Underwood, from the University of Southampton.

About 80% of people with cancer do not respond to chemotherapy, according to previous research.

“Finding a drug, which is already safely prescribed to people every day, could be a big step forward in the fight against this difficult to treat disease,” Prof Tim explained.

The drug works by relaxing cells that can sometimes protect cancer cells – which happens in those for whom chemo doesn’t work.

PDE5 changes the structure of the protective cells so that they become soft, which means they can no longer help the tumor to thrive and grow.

When the Southampton team tested PDE5-inhibiting drugs on cancer cells in the lab and on mice, they found chemotherapy was effective in 75% of cases.

This is compared to the usual 20% of patients with esophageal cancer.

What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?

Some of the main symptoms of esophageal cancer are weight loss and difficulty swallowing.

A long list of possible symptoms includes:

  • Pain behind the sternum
  • A hoarse cough
  • Indigestion and heartburn
  • A lump under the skin

The research, published in Medicine Reports Unitis still in its early stages, but the team hopes to begin human trials soon.

If successful, this treatment could help up to 9,300 people a year diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Developing new cancer drugs is hugely important, but doing it from scratch is a difficult process, and many fail along the way.

“We were also keen to explore whether existing drugs, approved for other diseases, can be effective in treating cancer.

“If these treatments prove effective, they will also prove to be more affordable and more quickly available to patients,” she explained.

“Advances in the treatment of esophageal cancer over the past 40 years have seen only limited improvement, which is why we have made it a research priority.

“We look forward to seeing how the combination treatment of PDE5 inhibitors with chemotherapy performs in clinical trials,” she added.

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