Chinese scientists find cancer hope in old pest remedy

Stephen Chen

A type of pesticide used to treat lice and worms in humans could help treat cancer, according to a new study by Chinese scientists.

A research team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology in Beijing injected Ivermectin, a widely available insecticide, into the bodies of mice with solid tumours and leukaemia. The cancer cells, which previously had been highly drug-resistant, immediately succumbed to chemotherapeutic drugs.

Professor Wu Yijun and his colleagues next tried Ivermectin on human cells in which colorectal and breast cancers had been cultured in a dish, with the same results.

“It was an unexpected discovery,” Wu said. “The original purpose of our research was not about cancer, but to study the drug resistance of insects.

“We have no idea how many cancers could be treated by this method, but we have tested it on two major cancer types, solid tumour and blood cancer, and it works very well in both cases,” he said.

Anti-parasitic medication Ivermectin has low toxicity for humans and now appears to have a role to play in cancer treatment, Chinese researchers have found. Photo: Alamy

Wu and his fellow researchers reported their findings in last month’s Journal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research, concluding the pesticide could be used in combination with chemotherapeutic agents to treat cancers, especially the drug-resistant types,

According to Wu, new cancer treatments usually take years or even decades of testing before they can be used on patients, but Ivermectin is an old drug with a long history of use, making clinical trials of the hybrid treatment potentially shorter than usual and approvals easier to obtain.

The family of compounds from which Ivermectin is derived was discovered by Nobel laureates Satoshi Omura and William Campbell in the 1970s. The chemical, produced by the bacterium Streptomyces avermitilis, can kill many types of parasites including lice, mites, worms and nematodes by disrupting the fluid exchange through the insect's cell membrane.

What makes Ivermectin different from other common pesticides is its low toxicity to humans. It has been approved for clinical use by health authorities including the US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organisation and can be applied directly to the skin or taken orally.

It sometimes results in mild side effects including red eyes and dry skin.

The new research by Wu’s team found Ivermectin could also suppress the expression of a protein that can help cancer cells to resist drugs.

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