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Rheumatoid arthritis drug could reduce "awful" side effects of chemotherapy

New discovery could reduce side effects of chemoth
Photo: Rheumatoid arthritis drug could reduce "awful" side effects of chemotherapy
A discovery by University of Queensland pain researchers may allow some future cancer patients, including children with leukaemia, to avoid chemotherapy’s worst and most debilitating side effects.

Lead researchers, Professor Irina Vetter and Dr Hana Starobova, told HealthTimes that “vincristine is one of the most important anti-cancer drugs used for treatment of a range of paediatric and adult cancers, including blood cancer and brain tumours.”

“We found the anti-inflammatory drug, anakinra, substantially reduced the awful nerve symptoms for which vincristine chemotherapy is known.”

“Importantly, it did not reduce the effectiveness of the chemo”, they said.

Anakinra is an existing rheumatoid and juvenile arthritis treatment – which could mean a relatively fast translation to clinical use.
Claire Bermingham of Lennox Head said her son Archer, 4, still suffered from his 2019 vincristine treatment for leukaemia and doctors estimated the side-effects would last eight years.

“Archer has peripheral neuropathy, foot drag, headaches, jaw pain and occasional raspy voice,” Mrs Bermingham said.

“He can’t take stairs, hold a pen, write his name, use scissors or do lots of other things children his age can do.

“People think once treatment is over and the cancer is in remission, that it’s all over – that’s not the reality.”

Mrs Bermingham said she was delighted to hear about the discovery at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

“It’s great that researchers are prioritising kinder, gentler cancer treatments for children,” she said.

The Kids’ Cancer Project part-funded the research and the charity’s chief executive, Owen Finegan, said the researchers’ discovery “will flow through to patients much more quickly than if the researchers had developed a completely new drug.”

“This is likely to bring better treatment for kids with cancers including acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, sarcoma, medulloblastoma and neuroblastoma.

“We are also delighted that these findings – initiated to help children – will also benefit adults”, Mr Finegan said.

Vincristine induced neuropathy is characterized by numbness, tingling and neuropathic pain in the extremities, muscle weakness and gastrointestinal disturbances, that arise from damage to peripheral nerves.

“Vincristine induced neuropathy not only significantly reduces the quality of life of cancer patients and survivors, but also often necessitates dose reduction or discontinuation of the cancer treatment leading to low cancer survival prognosis.”

Once the nerves have been damaged, their recovery to normal physiological function may take up to 10 years, meaning patients who have received vincristine will experience the symptoms of neuropathy for a long time after their cancer treatment.

“We hope that treatment with anakinra at the same time as receiving chemotherapy could largely stop these side effects altogether – this would of course mean less side effects from chemotherapy, and thus also a better quality of life for patients
and cancer survivors”, Professor Vetter and Dr Starobova explained.

The biological process underpinning the effect of anakinra is complex, but involves the drug’s ability to “turn off” the inflammation which is one of the body’s natural reactions to vincristine.

As the researchers progress their clinical studies on anakinra, there are a number of several questions that need to be addressed next, which includes when to best dose anakinra in relation to chemotherapy.

“We are hopeful that we can translate this research to better patient outcomes relatively quickly, because anakinra is an approved anti-inflammatory drug that has been used for decades for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults and children.”

“Additionally, in our preliminary experiments, anakinra proved to be effective for the treatment of neuropathies caused by other chemotherapy drugs – so we are planning more research on whether these treatments might also help patients receiving other drugs”, Professor Vetter and Dr Starobova said.

The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine and funded by the NHMRC.


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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.