Botox: how the treatment can be used to treat cancer

Aug 21, 2014

'Remarkable' findings show nerve paralysis can slow tumour growth, but research is still in its early stages

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The chemical toxin Botox could be "highly effective" in treating stomach cancer, new research has shown.

Scientists studied the links between the nervous system and cancerous tumours in the stomach and found that the drug worked by cutting off nerve signals that led to tumour growth.

 What is Botox and what is it used for? 

It is a toxin made from the bacteria that causes botulism – a rare paralytic illness. Botox temporarily reduces muscle activity by blocking nerve transmission and has a variety of medical uses.

 It is most notably employed in the cosmetic industry to reduce the appearance of wrinkles but is also used to treat muscle conditions caused by nerve disorders as well as incontinence and migraines, according to doctors at Dartmouth University.

 How can it be used to treat cancer? 

Scientists used locally administered Botox to interrupt signals from the nervous system that were responsible for the growth of cancer cells, thus slowing down the growth of the tumour. The drug also makes the cancer more responsive to other treatments, with scientists reporting a 35 per cent increase in survival rates when Botox was used in combination with chemotherapy.

Botox is cheaper and less toxic that other aggressive cancer treatments and causes far fewer side effects.

Due to the success of the animal tests, a human trial is due to begin shortly in Norway, according to the Daily Telegraph. A researcher there said the effects of Botox were "remarkable".

 Can it only be used to treat stomach cancer? 

Early trials have focused specifically on early-stage cancerous tumours in the stomach, but doctors are hopeful that the treatment could be extended to various other cancers, especially prostate cancer.

"In the future, we'd really like to look at how we can use this method of targeting nerves to stop the growth of more advanced tumours," said lead researcher Dr Timothy Wang.

 What has the reaction been to the findings? 

While the results are encouraging, doctors admit the research is still in its very early stages.

Cancer Research UK has said they welcomed the "innovative" new treatment idea, "but it's not yet clear if this particular approach could help to save patients' lives," according to the BBC.

Dr Wang conceded that despite the potential, "it always seems cancer is smarter than we are". He warned that the disease might fight back. "Tumours have the ability to out-evolve any single agent," he said. "Knocking one leg off a stool is probably not going to topple it."

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