Monash researchers trialling beta-blockers as breast cancer treatment

19 February 2016

A research team led by a Monash PhD student is investigating whether drugs traditionally used to treat high blood pressure can slow the spread of breast cancer. Clinical and research anaesthetist Dr Jonathan Hiller is leading the clinical trials at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. He is currently completing a PhD with Monash's Dr Erica Sloan and Prof Paul Myles, and Associate Prof Bernhard Riedel of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. The trials form part of his PhD research.

His work builds on earlier findings by Dr Sloan's team at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Science. In 2010, they discovered that chronic stress accelerated the spread of breast cancer in mice.

"We found that chronic stress acts like a fertiliser for tumour cells. It helps the cells grow and then spread to other areas of the body," said Dr Sloan. 

Dr Hiller is investigating whether beta-blockers, which reduce blood pressure by blocking the effect of stress hormones, will counteract the effects of acute stress, such as that encountered during surgery, on breast cancer as well.

"In animal studies we have seen that beta-blockers can prevent the spread of breast cancer and, in human breast cancer studies, better outcomes have been seen in patients who have breast cancer and have been simultaneously treated for hypertension with beta-blockers," Dr Hiller said.

"This whole study is really about a new role for an old drug." 

Although the study is still in its infancy, with just three of the expected 60 patients signed up, Dr Hiller is confident that beta-blockers could improve the prognosis for people with breast cancer.

The study is supported by the US National Cancer Institute, the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.