Tapeworms and Tumors: How Repurposed Medicine Can Cure Cancer

Illustrated by Lily Xu

The “cure for cancer,” in modern day, has become synonymous with an unattainable miracle- like finding the Holy Grail or the meaning of life. Light quips of, “Maybe that kid will grow up to cure cancer,” pepper heavily into daily vocabulary. It’s common knowledge that cancer’s unpredictability, its diverse range of physiological targets, and difficulty to detect make it nearly impossible to consistently treat. However it’s very likely that a cure for most variations of cancer may already have been found: in repurposed parasite medication.

Repurposing medication is not a new concept. Due to the explosive cost of healthcare and medication becoming increasingly inaccessible, cancer researchers have studied the possibilities of a single medication working to treat multiple illnesses. The Anticancer Fund, a non-profit cancer research organization, published a policy paper open to the public where they stated, “New cancer treatments are being developed by the pharma industry, but the process of bringing these drugs to the market is slow and expensive. A largely untapped, affordable and safe treatment approach is to reuse available licensed non-cancer drugs as new anticancer treatment,” (Anticancer Fund, 2017). As can be expected, reusing medication has its risks. Patients who self-medicate without consulting a professional risk suffering unintended adverse effects. However, in the case of Joe Tippens, a U.S. patient who was diagnosed with lethal lung cancer in 2016, the only consequence was becoming completely cancer free after only three months of taking the most unlikely of medicines: a dog dewormer medication.

Joe Tippens, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer for nearly a year, stumbled upon a veterinary forum after being told he would only have three months left to live. He learned of how common dog deworming medication was effective in experiments on rats with cancer, and how a doctor with four-stage brain cancer tested it on himself and saw his cancerous cells disappear after six weeks of taking it. After doing more research, he found that the primary ingredient in the drug, fenbendazole, actively starves malignant cells and kills them. Determined to try anything, he took fenbendazole-based dog deworming medication for three months and eventually was confirmed on a PET scan to be completely cured. Tippens also uploaded his testimony on Youtube, which went viral and sparked a major international movement towards using the repurposed drug. However the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety urged caution after witnessing the explosive growth in dog-deworming medication sales in Korea, stating that, “If patients take fenbendazole after their physical strength has been weakened from chemotherapy, side effects can occur,” (“Dog Dewormer Gets Scarce amid Rumors of Efficacy in Cancer,” 2019). He also strongly urged cancer patients not to take the drug based on one testimony as not enough studies had been done to assess its effectiveness on humans. 

While quality control is a valid concern, cancer researchers across the world in the last couple of years have found numerous connections between deworming drugs and the decline of cancerous tissue. In 2017, Norwegian scientists found that NTZ, a common anti-parasite drug, killed cancer cells by decomposing activated beta-catenin. Professor Karl-Henning Kalland of the University of Bergen and leader of the research team who discovered this phenomenon stated, “We discovered that this specific substance is blocking the signaling pathway in the cancer cells… It is not often that researchers discover a substance that targets specific molecules as precisely as this one,” (“Parasite Killer Too Found to Be Effective Cancer Treatment Candidate,” 2018). Additionally, Kalland’s team discovered that reducing beta-catenin enhanced the body’s central immune system, providing a minimal side-effect natural defense against cancerous cells. 

In the same year, University of California San Francisco published a paper detailing how a common deworming pill could reduce cancer from a lethal illness to a chronic one by targeting a host of genes at the same time instead of a single unpredictable mutation. Bin Chen, PhD, a faculty member and researcher in Pediatrics in the Institute for Computational Health Sciences, explained how he analyzed 274 genes regulated in cancerous tissues and, in looking for drugs that targeted those genes, found that common deworming pills were highly effective in destroying cancerous tissue. “We found these disease genes were reversed after six weeks of treatment in a patient-derived tissue in a mouse model,” said Chen. He also added that, “… finding molecular signatures for diseases then looking for drugs that work against those signatures is a promising way of treating patients who may each have a different set of cancer mutations and might not respond to drugs that just targeted them one at a time,” (“Deworming Pill May Be Effective in Treating Liver Cancer,” 2017). Cancer is difficult to treat because it’s derived from unpredictable mutations that could permeate any area of the body. By using a drug that could target multiple genes at once, Chen remains optimistic about the future of multiple types of cancer treatment. 

Parasite medication, in its many forms, has resurfaced multiple times in its role as a repurposed medication. It was discovered in 1950 and since then, has been found effective in attacking bacterial infections to inhibiting cancer pathways. Just recently in 2019, a team from Singapore’s A*STAR Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology found that the drug niclosamide, which is found in anti-parasitic medication, actively kills p53-defective cancer cells by raising metabolic stress. Essentially, it has the ability to specifically target cancer cells yet still spare healthy cells that carry a differing wild type p53 gene. Chit Fang Cheok, lead researcher of this study, remarks how the U.S.’s Food and Drug Administration has already approved the use of repurposed medication. “This can help to reduce cost and time in developing new candidate therapies and speed up the pipeline of available therapeutics redirected for targeting cancers,” (“Tapeworm Drug Could Be an Effective Treatment for Certain Cancers, 2019) Cheok stated.

What can be concluded from all of this? The takeaway isn’t that all common medications may hold some secret cure to deadly incurable diseases. Blind self-medication may result in harmful side effects, and still isn’t advised. However, with the support of dedicated research teams across the world, common medications have found new purpose in defeating devastating diseases and may hold the key to making treatment more accessible and more reliable.

Edited by: Frank Lin
Illustrated by: Lily Xu



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