Scientists at Duke Medicine may have found a way to deprive prostate cancer cells of their copper fuel, researchers say. Prostate cancer cells thrive on high levels of copper, stealing it from the body to increase tumor growth. Duke scientists say they may have devised a way to kill the cells by tricking them into accepting a lethal dose of the cancer-destroying drug disulfiram—by first tempting the cancer with high levels of copper.
According to the study’s lead author and chairman of the Duke Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, Donald McDonnell, Ph.D., the two-drug treatment plan came in response to previous failed attempts to starve tumors of copper. McDonnell says the team’s efforts relied on the necessity of copper to deliver the disulfiram, a drug that had independently failed in previous trials conducted without additional copper.
Interestingly, the FDA had previously approved disulfiram as a treatment for patients struggling with chronic alcoholism, but scientists later discovered its ability to fight cancerous prostate cells. McDonnell says that the disulfiram-copper combination drug treatment protocol resulted in significant reductions in tumor growth in laboratory animals when extra copper supplementation was given.
But perhaps even more exciting for the Duke research team was an unexpected byproduct of the original study: the discovery that male androgen hormones also helped elevate the amount of copper in cancer cells. This finding has led the scientists to entertain the potential benefits of specially designed hormone therapies for men suffering from the disease. While McDonnell warns that hormone-based therapies have not been successful for long-term treatment and reduction in tumor growth, he says the results are promising enough to mandate further investigation into the relationship between replacement therapies, copper, and future multi-modal treatment plans that reduce the reoccurrences of the cancer.