Sometimes, finding a treatment for previously incurable health conditions doesn’t require the invention of new medications at all. There are those rare cases when existing medications are found to be effective in treating other seemingly unrelated conditions. This is exactly what had happened in the case of loperamide, better known under its commercial name Imodium, a common diarrhea medication.
According to a German research group from the Institute of Experimental Cancer Research in Paediatrics at Goethe University, this affordable and widely-accessible drug can kill the cells of glioblastoma tumors, the most aggressive type of brain cancer.
According to Mayo Clinic, glioblastoma is “an aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. Glioblastoma forms from cells called astrocytes that support nerve cells”. Although glioblastoma can occur at any age, it is more widespread in older adults, and it is sometimes confused with a stroke since often the first symptoms of the condition are worsening headaches, nausea, vomiting, and seizures.
These dangerous brain tumors are infamous for being resistant to treatment and practically incurable. So often, the only way doctors can help a patient with glioblastoma is by reducing the disease's signs and symptoms. Thus, effective alternative treatments are urgently required, and the German research team led by Dr. Sjoerd van Wijk believes they have found one. According to a study published in the Autophagy journal at the end of October 2020, researchers started injecting loperamide into glioblastoma cells and found that it induces the cells' death.
Furthermore, the researchers also discovered why the drug is effective: introducing loperamide in the cell causes a stress response in the part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), an organelle that synthesizes the building blocks of cells - proteins. As a result, the cancer cells start to degrade and ultimately go into self-destruction mode.
This specific mechanism of self-induced cancer cell death is known as autophagy-dependent cell death, from the Ancient Greek autóphagos meaning "self-devouring". To some extent, autophagy is a normal part of a cell’s life cycle that removes unnecessary or dysfunctional components from the cell. But when cancer cells were exposed to loperamide, it caused a process of self-degradation in the membrane of the ER and ultimately the entire cell. “Our experiments with cell lines show that autophagy could support the treatment of glioblastoma brain tumors,” stated van Wijk.
Moreover, the researchers point out that the drug may be a feasible option for other difficult-to-treat neurological disorders or even dementia. At this point, the German research team is working on making a stronger customized version of loperamide that would be used specifically in the brain and ways to safely deliver the medication into the tumor without harming the healthy surrounding brain tissues. You see, simply taking the drug as you would normally to treat diarrhea would not help, as loperamide is actually not absorbed into the blood at all.
Of course, we’ll keep you updated on any further developments of this new exciting treatment.
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