WEDNESDAY, July 18 (HealthDay News) -- When common heart drugs such as digitalis and digoxin are combined with some chemotherapy drugs, the effect appears to be an increase in the death of cancer cells, according to French researchers.
These medications, called glycosides, have been around for decades and are used to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeats.
When combined with chemotherapy drugs, however, they appear to act similar to a vaccine -- priming the immune system to kill cancer cells.
"This is very exciting; it describes a new way to make chemotherapy more effective," said Marc Symons, an investigator at the Center for Oncology and Cell Biology at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y. Symons was not involved in the study, which was published July 18 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The effect was first noticed when the French team, led by Laurie Menger from INSERM in Villejuif, combed through patients' medical records. They discovered that cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who were also taking these drugs for heart trouble tended to do better than cancer patients who did not take them.
The authors said this appears to be because the drugs convert dead cancer cells into a kind of trigger that alerts the immune system to attack tumor cells.
This approach to cancer therapy still needs to be tested, however, and the researchers said they plan to do so in patients with neck and head cancer.
William Chambers, director of Clinical Cancer Research and Immunology at the American Cancer Society, noted that the researchers also have developed a way of screening drugs to see if they will have this effect on cancer cells. That could help spot drugs that trigger an immune response, he said.
"It also reinforces the notion that the immune system and chemotherapy working in concert is really g
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