HEALTH

Sounding an alarm

Can some medications promote cancer?

MARK NICHOLS September 11 1995
HEALTH

Sounding an alarm

Can some medications promote cancer?

MARK NICHOLS September 11 1995

Sounding an alarm

HEALTH

Can some medications promote cancer?

Lome Brandes is a man with a mission. A physician and researcher at the Manitoba Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation in Winnipeg, Brandes has long suspected that some widely used drugs may have the unintended side-effect of stimulating tumor growth. In 1992, he and other researchers published a study showing that two popular antidepressants,

Prozac and Elavil, seemed to promote cancer growth in laboratory animals. Two years later, Brandes published the results of another investigation, which showed that three commonly used antihistamines also appeared to promote tumor growth in mice. Now, in an article published in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal,

Brandes describes two fascinating cases in which drugs being used for unrelated conditions had a striking effect on tumor growth. As an editorial in the Journal notes, the cases by themselves prove nothing about the safety of the two drugs involved—the antidepressant lithium and a widely used antihistamine that is not identified in the article. But the editorial suggests that the cases should cause physicians to “begin taking stock of what could possibly be happening to people

who have detected or undetected tumors and who are taking antidepressants or antihistamines.”

Both cases occurred last year and involved patients of Brandes. One was a 63year-old woman who developed cancer that

affected her forehead, upper eyelids and the bridge of her nose. The woman was taking daily doses of lithium carbonate—a substance that has been linked to some forms of cancer in the past—to treat her manic-depressive illness. When, at Brandes’s suggestion, she stopped taking lithium, the cancer showed signs of subsiding. But when her

mental state deteriorated and she was put on another antidepressant drug—and eventually back on lithium—the tumor grew rapidly and killed her.

In the other case, a 74-year-old woman who had previously been operated on for colon cancer was found to be suffering from a recurrence of the disease. The woman decided against further surgery, and received no more treatment. But she was aware of Brandes’s earlier study involving antihistamines. As the woman later explained to Brandes’s nurse, Linda Friesen, she decided to stop using an over-the-counter decongestant, which she had been taking for 12 years and which contained an antihistamine. Within 60 days, her cancer—a type that rarely, if ever, undergoes spontaneous remission—had vanished. So far, her cancer has remained in remission.

Brandes predicted that medical authorities would dismiss his observations. “They’ll probably say, ‘Don’t worry about Dr. Brandes— he’s overreacting.’” But some cancer researchers said that Brandes’s paper was potentially significant. “It’s important that doctors know about these cases, in the event that they come across the same thing in their own practices,” said Dr. David Hedley, a cancer researcher at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. “But if no other cases come out of the woodwork, then I think we will be able to conclude that what Dr. Brandes saw were simply coincidences.” Until that question is resolved, some patients and their doctors may become more cautious about using the medications singled out in Brandes’s disturbing study.

MARK NICHOLS