Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune conditions often share certain links to various forms of cancer.
From having some of the same treatments to putting patients at risk for the other ailment, autoimmunity and cancer can be, for better or worse, associated.
The association isn’t always bad. Sometimes, a treatment for one may prove itself to be useful in treating the other.
While drugs like methotrexate and rituximab as well as steroid treatment, and therapies such as IVIG infusions have long overlapped for both cancer and RA, a new discovery about an old RA drug has recently come to light — and it shows promise for patients suffering from a certain form of ovarian cancer.
Attacking a Mutant Gene
Some patients with ovarian cancer associated with the BRCA1 gene mutation (now sometimes colloquially referred to as the “Angelina Jolie” gene) have responded positively to treatment from auranofin, a drug that is an older, but still used, rheumatoid arthritis medication.
In a recent study, performed by researchers from Plymouth University in the United Kingdom (U.K.) in association with the Plymouth Hospital NHS Trust and Plymouth University, patients with BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes were treated with auranofin.
The drug isn’t yet approved for use in the U.K., but it is often used to treat arthritis in the United States.
The study, published in the medical journal Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis, found that when these ovarian cancer cells were treated with auranofin during microscopic procedures in a laboratory, there was a clear example of the drug’s potential “cancer-killing” properties.
These findings were noted as auranofin attacked and caused damaged to cancerous cells that had the dangerous BRCA1 mutation. In fact, it reduced the survival rate of these bad cells by 37 percent.
Clinical Trials Have Begun
Auranofin is currently undergoing clinical trials with the hope that it can be repurposed for this form and another form of ovarian cancer called recurrent epithelial ovarian cancer. The latter comprises approximately 90 percent of all doctor-diagnosed cases of ovarian cancers.
Awadhesh Jha, a professor of genetic toxicology and ecotoxicology at Plymouth University and one of the researchers on the current study, said in a statement that the RA drug offers great promise.
“It suggests that auranofin has the potential to be considered for future clinical studies to treat such ovarian cancers and this could serve as the springboard to use other available drugs which are not used as chemotherapeutic drugs,” he said. “Using drugs such as auranofin to treat cancer is highly promising since they are readily available and their pharmacological and toxicological properties are well-documented.”
This is due to the fact that researchers have been studying auranofin’s potential to treat cancer since the 1980s and because its side effects and outcomes as a DMARD drug for patients with rheumatoid arthritis have been documented over the past three decades.
Still Long Way to Go
Rheumatoid arthritis patients shouldn’t worry if auranofin becomes repurposed to treat ovarian or other forms of cancer. RA patients who currently take the drug or may be prescribed it in the future should still be able to get the medication, experts say.
The change-over may not happen any time soon.
According to the website of the Ovarian Cancer Action organization in the U.K., “much more evidence will be required before auranofin can be declared a viable treatment for ovarian cancer in women with a BRCA1 gene mutation.”
It should be noted, too, that auranofin is currently not among the top-prescribed or most commonly prescribed RA medications.
It is rarely used in a day and age when biologics and biosimilars are taking over the rheumatology field.
So perhaps repurposing it for use in cancer patients will be the second chance that this oft-forgotten and disease-modifying arthritis drug to shine once again.