Harvard Heart Letter

Unexpected benefit for digoxin?

Most medications have potentially harmful side effects, such as stomach upset with aspirin. A team from Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities found what looks to be a beneficial side effect for digoxin — lowered risk of prostate cancer. Digoxin, which was originally extracted from the foxglove plant, has been used for decades to treat heart failure and some heart rhythm problems.

Using an automated system, the researchers tested the ability of nearly 3,200 compounds to halt the growth of prostate cancer cells. Digoxin was one of the top five. As a real-world check, the researchers looked at nearly 48,000 men in the ongoing Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Those who had routinely taken digoxin were 24% less likely to have developed prostate cancer over the 20-year period of the study (Cancer Discovery, published online April 3, 2011).

Digoxin itself probably won't be used to prevent prostate cancer. It is a difficult drug to manage and often causes unwanted side effects. But this research could lead to a digoxin-related compound for fighting prostate cancer. More broadly, the research method used in this work offers a promising way to recycle old drugs for new uses at a fraction of the cost of developing new ones from scratch.

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