A team of researchers from Monash University have discovered a cardiac drug can reduce breast cancer progression and mortality.

Carvedilol is a beta-blocker which is used to manage cardiovascular disorders, including hypertension and chemotherapy-induced heart disease. New research suggests that people who take the drug at the time of diagnosis with breast cancer are much more likely to survive.

In collaboration with a team from the Cancer Registry of Norway, the researchers investigated the effects of carvedilol in a large cohort of breast cancer patients (4,014) and found that if women happened to be taking carvedilol when they were diagnosed, they had a greater chance of survival than those not taking the drug.

The study, published in the European Journal of Cancer, was led by Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) researchers Associate Professor Erica Sloan and Mr Ryan Gillis, with support from the National Breast Cancer Foundation in Australia.

Associate Professor Erica Sloan, Monash University

Development of earlier research

Associate Professor Erica Sloan, who has been exploring the use of beta-blockers as a novel strategy to slow cancer progression for a number of years, said, ‘In earlier research, published in 2020, we demonstrated that the beta blocker propranolol independently reduces biomarkers of metastasis in breast cancer, which is what led us to explore how carvedilol might also affect cancer-related outcomes.

‘Our research into propranolol discovered that beta-blockers can halt the stress response experienced by cancer patients at the time of diagnosis and essentially stop the cancer from evading – in this new study, we’ve harnessed this knowledge to explore how carvedilol, which is already being used in cancer patients, might be repurposed to significantly improve patient outcomes.

‘It’s an exciting finding that shows that a cardiac drug that’s currently being used in cancer patients to treat chemotherapy-induced heart disease, actually could also help slow or stop their cancer,’ said Associate Professor Erica Sloan.

The sympathetic nervous system drives breast cancer progression through β-adrenergic receptor signalling.’


Surprising numbers

MIPS researcher and lead author on the study, Ryan Gillis said, ‘In this study, we discovered that treatment with carvedilol blocked the effects of sympathetic nervous system activation, reducing primary tumour growth and metastasis in a mouse model of breast cancer and prevented invasion by breast cancer cell lines.

‘In a large cohort of breast cancer patients, a retrospective analysis found that women using carvedilol at breast cancer diagnosis had reduced breast cancer-specific mortality compared to women who did not (after a median follow-up of 5.5 years).

‘In terms of next steps, we believe these findings provide a rationale to further explore the use of carvedilol as a novel strategy to slow cancer progression.’

The team is now working on the next steps in their research, including potential for a clinical trial.

This work was supported by the National Breast Cancer Foundation Australia and the National Health Medical Research Council.

The clinical work was made possible through a collaboration with epidemiologists located in Norway.