Health & Fitness

Viagra, Cialis may help fight throat and neck cancer

Researchers have discovered that the little blue and yellow pills that have boosted men’s sex lives for more than two decades may actually someday help fight everything from liver disease and Alzheimer’s to Multiple Sclerosis and cancer.

The latest discovery, announced Tuesday by researchers and physicians at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, shows that erectile dysfunction drugs like Tadalafil (commonly known as Cialis) may provide tumor-fighting benefits in treating throat and neck cancer.

Mark Giattini, a 62-year-old Sanibel attorney who had part of his tongue removed after contracting throat cancer several years ago, was among 35 patients who were part of a clinical trial at the hospital. Doctors said despite being a small, controlled study, they found that moderate doses of Tadalafil altered patients’ immune systems, suggesting that the drug and other similar medications could inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

Giattini said prior to surgery, he was suffering pain from an enormous tumor at the back of his throat and feared the worst, since it was his second bout with cancer.

“It’s never fun when someone tells you you have cancer, and it’s even less fun when they tell you have tongue cancer — and that the principal fix is to basically remove your tongue,’’ said Giattini, whose tongue was subsequently reconstructed from muscle and veins in his left arm.

Prior to surgery, Giattini’s tumor was so painful that he was barely able to eat. After taking the Tadalafil for just 10 days, he said the pain had significantly subsided and he believed the tumor had shrunk.

“Somehow the monster in my throat was getting smaller,’’ said Giattini, whose cancer is now at bay.

His surgeon, Dr. Donald Weed, said Giattini’s tumor had not reduced very much — but he discovered after studying the growth that it appeared the drug may have boosted the good cells that fight infection, thereby preventing the cancer from growing and spreading.

“This is very exciting because Tadalafil is easy to take and has few side effects,’’ Weed said, adding that it could someday be used in place of or in conjunction with other traditional, more aggressive, forms of treatment like radiation therapy.

The findings — among the first trials of its kind conducted on humans — showed that for those who took the drug, there was a significant decrease in cells that feed the tumor, while at the same time, an increase in cells that attack cancerous growths. Further trials are planned.

UM’s program was funded by FAMRI, a non-profit organization that studies smoking-related cancers, such as throat cancer. The non-profit was created as part of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought against tobacco companies by non-smoking flight attendants.

UM researcher Dr. Paolo Serafini, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, said he first began studying the effects of erectile dysfunction drugs on cancer while at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in 2005.

Tests conducted on mice implanted with colon and breast tumors showed that tumor size significantly decreased in animals treated with Sildenafil, commonly known as Viagra and other trade names. The drugs boost the production of nitric oxide, the chemical messenger used to dilate blood vessels and cause an erection. The Hopkins researchers found that same chemical messenger also appeared to thwart cells that allow cancer to grow.

Weed and Serafini cautioned however, that research on impotence drugs is a long way from being used to cure cancer or any disease.

“We’re not saying that everyone should go out there and start taking Cialis so they don’t get cancer,’’ Weed said.

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