Pioneering new drug could eliminate long-term side effects of cancer treatment

Radiotherapy for cancer is often debilitating but also necessary, so anything that can help improve side effects is a huge step ­forward.

Hats off then to scientists at Newcastle University who have come up with a simple, one-off treatment that can prevent long-term side effects of cancer radiotherapies.

There are about two million cancer survivors in the UK, many of whom face premature memory loss and various diseases resembling premature ageing, to which sadly, there’s no cure. This is thought to be caused by side effects of toxic cancer chemotherapies and radiotherapies, which treat cancer cells but can also damage normal cells.

The researchers wanted to know whether they could prevent such devastating consequences of cancer therapies via a short treatment with senolytics, a class of drugs that specifically eliminates cells damaged due to cancer therapies.

They tested the idea in mice and found that those treated with senolytic drugs soon after radiotherapy didn’t develop premature ageing, and the animals treated after they started ageing prematurely also showed improved health.

Dr Satomi Miwa, Lecturer in the Biology of Ageing, Newcastle University who led the research, said: “Increasing numbers of people are now successfully treated for cancer, and the survival rates from many cancer types are high. The people who had beaten cancers can start looking forward to their new lives again, but only if the quality of life is not going to be affected.

“Sadly, this is the case for the moment. However, our new research shows that there is a way to prevent any long-term side effects occurring, and to reduce risks of cancer relapse.”

So what are senolytics? The word actually means “destroy age” and they’re an exciting development in the biology of ageing. The drugs kill senile cells and have been shown to postpone, and in some cases heal, age-linked disease or disability in mice.

Currently, a dozen clinical trials using different senolytic drugs in people are under way against such conditions as pulmonary fibrosis (lung fibrosis), diabetic kidney disease and osteoarthritis.

The Newcastle group intends to continue the research as Dr Miwa explains: “We want to test our approach in cancer types specifically, and move to clinical setting as fast as we can. We are particularly interested in childhood brain tumour survivors, as they are the worst affected group of people suffering from long-term side effects from cancer therapies.”

The study provides new hope for people who receive cancer therapies to ensure a better quality of living for the rest of their lives.