Viagra and Cancer: Can the ED Drug Prevent Prostate Cancer?

We all know Viagra as a wonder drug for men suffering from erectile dysfunction. But recent studies show that the drug may be far more valuable than we expect, with the potential to fight different cancers in various ways.

If recent studies can be confirmed by human trials, Viagra (sildenafil) may be the first line of defense against melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer. It may be used, not only to improve the sex lives of men who have had surgery for prostate cancer, but to prevent prostate cancer, as well. And it may even be given with anti-cancer drugs to make these more effective and to ease their serious side effects.

All these are findings of several studies, done independently and published in different scientific journals over recent years.

Viagra may help cure melanoma
One of these studies offers hope to around 132,000 people worldwide who suffer from melanoma, many of them young and in their productive years.

Melanoma is the leading cause of death from skin cancer. One American dies of this disease every hour, and it is also among the more common forms of cancer in young adults, from 15 to 29 years old.

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The study, conducted by Dr. Viktor Umansky and his team at the University Medical Center Mannheim, Germany, showed that mice with melanoma improved when given Viagra over a seven-week period.

Because melanoma in people progresses in the same way as it does in mice, the study shows the potential of using Viagra to treat melanoma patients—but only after years of clinical trials on patients.

What Dr. Umansky’s research did was to suppress the chronic inflammatory immune response in mice successfully. This response occurs in both animals and people who have cancerous tumors and it is what prevents the patient’s immune system from fighting the disease.

In a healthy animal or person infected by a disease, body’s immune system responds by sending T cells to attack the infecting agent. When a cancerous tumor develops, the body’s immune system still does that, but the tumor itself causes a chronic inflammatory immune response and this inflammation suppresses the body’s immune response. Instead of seeking and destroying the tumor, T cells that enter the tumor’s environment stop reproducing and lose their potency.

For Dr. Umansky’s team, the challenge then was to develop a drug therapy to reduce the tumor’s chronic inflammatory response, in order to allow the T cells to work at full power and to do their job.

Dr. Umansky’s study showed that Viagra somehow neutralizes the tumor’s inflammatory immune response—at least in mice.

The researchers placed Viagra in the drinking water given to a group of mice with melanoma, while another group was left untreated.

At the end of the seven-week study period, twice as many mice treated with the drug were still alive as compared to the untreated group. T cell counts in the treated mice had also returned to normal, indicating that they weren’t being suppressed by the tumor’s inflammatory response. Molecules within the T cells that are typically deactivated by the tumor’s immune response had also returned to normal.

Viagra to prevent prostate cancer?
Another study showed that Viagra does not only treat the erectile dysfunction that results from prostate cancer surgery, but can prevent the cancer, as well.

Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men. About 680,000 men are diagnosed every year with a prostate tumor and 220,000 die as a result of prostate tumors.

Because crucial nerves are severed when patients have their prostates removed, four out of five of the men who come out of a prostatectomy suffer from erectile dysfunction.

The 2003 study by Dr. Harin Padma-Nathan of the University of Southern California revealed that patients who had their prostates removed were seven times more likely to regain normal erectile function if they took Viagra. Dr. Padma-Nathan said the findings were “so dramatic” that he advised giving Viagra to all men undergoing a prostatectomy.

The study’s findings were unveiled at the annual scientific meeting of the American Urological Association in Chicago 2003 and first reported by Reuters Health. The study was funded by Pfizer Inc., maker of Viagra.

Surprisingly, the study also showed that along with treating the erectile dysfunction, Viagra can also prevent the condition in the first place. None of the reports on the study, however, explained how this worked.

In the study, 51 men were asked to take either 50 mg or 100 mg of Viagra every night for nine months beginning four weeks after prostatectomy. Another 25 men were given a placebo during the same time period.

All of the men had normal erectile function before surgery. After nine months of Viagra treatment, participants then spent eight weeks without medication.

Dr. Padma-Nathan’s team found that 27 percent of men who were given Viagra, regardless of the dose, had regained erectile functioning that was equal to what they reported before having surgery. Four percent of the men given the placebo reported regaining their previous erectile function.

Viagra boosts cancer drug, lessens serous side effect
Another study found that combining Viagra with the anti-cancer drug doxorubicin eased the cancer drug’s life-threatening side effects.

Doxorubicin is a powerful anti-cancer drug that is effective in treating many cancers—breast, ovary, lung, thyroid, stomach, lymph nodes and Kaposi’s sarcoma. But life-threatening heart damage is its most serious side effect.

Researchers under Rakesh Kukreja of the Virginia Commonwealth University, who were looking for a way to ease those cardiac symptoms, found that Viagra did a good job.

While they were initially worried that that Viagra might also reduce the tumor-fighting properties of doxorubicin, the study showed that it actually boosted the effectiveness of the cancer drug.

“That was a huge surprise. We thought that, in order for this drug to be used for protecting the heart, we needed to rule out that it did not interfere with the efficacy of doxorubicin for treatment of cancer. So we found the opposite results, where we saw, actually, enhanced anti-tumor effect of doxorubicin in prostate cancer,” Kukreja said.

Kukreja said the next step will be human trials, to see how the doxorubicin-Viagra combination works in actual patients.

A paper describing the research is published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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