Alcoholism Drug Could Help Combat Mesothelioma

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Researchers may have discovered a dual use for an old drug. Sold under the name Antabuse, Disulfiram (dye sul’ fi ram) has been used to treat chronic alcoholism since 1949, but it was not approved by the FDA until 1951. However, this unique medicine was the very first drug approved by the FDA to treat alcoholism.

Disulfiram works by producing extremely unpleasant side effects when the patient consumes alcohol. These effects include anxiety, blurred vision, chest pain, choking, difficulty breathing, flushing of the face, headache, mental confusion, nausea, sweating, vomiting, and weakness. A patient on Disulfiram will experience these effects within 10 minutes of consuming alcohol and they typically last for an hour or more.

While the drug is not a cure for alcoholism, the “psychological threat” of the side effects associated with it has discouraged thousands of former alcoholics from drinking. Currently, more than 200,000 patients take Antabuse for the treatment of chronic alcoholism, up from 50 patients in 1949. Now, researchers hope to have the same success with treating patients afflicted with malignant pleural mesothelioma.

A recent study, conducted by the doctors of Wayne State School of Medicine-Department of Oncology, Harbin Institute of Technology (Harbin, China), New York University Cancer Center, and Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, reported that Dithiocarbamate compound Disulfiram (DSF) that binds with copper (DSF-Cu) possesses anti-tumor chemosensitizing properties. In the study researchers investigated malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) suppressive effects of DSF-Cu and the molecular mechanisms involved. So far, the team has concluded that:

Intra-peritoneal administration of DSF-Cu suppressed growth of murine mesothelioma allografts in part by enhancing apoptosis. Our proof-of-concept studies reveal, for the first time, MPM inhibitory properties of DSF-Cu and are expected to facilitate utilization of this agent or its potent derivatives as potential adjuvant for treatment and perhaps chemoprevention of MPM.

Other studies have shown that Antabuse is also effective against colon, breast, and lung cancer cells.

Although further research is needed, the latest findings offer promise in the area of advancing mesothelioma treatment. To review the entire study, please visit PLOS One here.

What Causes Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma?

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure occurs when someone encounters asbestos fibers in the workplace, at home, and in the environment. When inhaled, asbestos fibers can travel all the way to the pleura, the lining of the lung and chest wall, where, according to 100 Questions & Answers About Mesothelioma, the fibers may irritate and injure the cells.

This can lead to the development of calcium containing plate-like structures on the pleural lining (pleural plaques), fibrosis (scar tissue formation), or mesothelioma. These same fibers can also damage cells in the lung itself, which can lead to asbestosis (scar tissue in the lung).

Around 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States. Although cases in the U.S. have decreased slightly since the 1990s, the rate of mesothelioma is on the rise in many other countries where the mineral is still mined, processed, imported, exported, and used in manufacturing products. In the U.S., the EPA has placed firm restrictions on asbestos, but it is still not banned.


100 Questions & Answers About Mesothelioma, Second Edition
Harvey I. Pass, MD, NYU School of Medicine and Clinical Cancer Center
Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR)
American Cancer Society, Medical Discoveries
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos
MedlinePlus, Disulfiram
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM)
PLOS One, Open Access Journal

Journal Reference

Cheriyan VT, Wang Y, Muthu M, Jamal S, Chen D, et al. (2014) Disulfiram Suppresses Growth of the Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma Cells in Part by Inducing Apoptosis. PLoS ONE 9(4): e93711. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093711.

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