Taking a certain type of beta blocker could prolong the lives of women with ovarian cancer by up to five years, a study published in Cancer
on 24 August 2015 suggests.
Sustained adrenergic activation has been shown to promote ovarian cancer growth and metastasis in preclinical studies, so researchers from the University of Texas examined the impact of beta-adrenergic blockade on the clinical outcome of women with epithelial ovarian cancer.
The researchers analysed the medical records of 1,425 women who had been treated for epithelial ovarian cancer and found that 269 had been taking beta blockers, usually prescribed for hypertension, arrhythmia or post-myocardial infarction management, at the same time as receiving chemotherapy.
For patients who took any beta blocker, the median overall survival was 47.8 months compared with 42 months for non-users (P=0.04). However, when researchers looked at the type of beta blocker taken, they found significant differences; median overall survival for women for who took non-selective beta blockers was 94.9 months, compared with 38.0 months for those who took beta-1–adrenergic receptor selective agents (P<0.001).
Hypertension was associated with decreased overall survival, but even patients with hypertension appeared to live longer if they took a non-selective beta blocker — median overall survival was 90.0 months compared with 34.2 months for non-users of beta blockers.
Simon Newman, director of research for charity Target Ovarian Cancer, says previous studies have linked high levels of stress with a decrease in survival rates in cancer patients, which supports the findings of the paper.
“This large retrospective clinical study may be the first to clearly show how blocking aspects of the stress response can see an increase in survival for ovarian cancer,” he says. “There are limitations to this study, however, and more trials will need to be done before there is a definitive link. But this exciting study shows how we can learn more about ovarian cancer from existing drugs used for other illnesses, and we may be able to open up new treatment options for ovarian cancer.”
In an accompanying editorial
, Kristen Bunch, from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Christina Annunziata, from the National Cancer Institute in the United States, say that the study “lays the groundwork for insightful investigation into repurposing cardiovascular medications to cancer therapeutics”. However, they add that beta blockers can cause significant side effects, which could prevent their widespread use in patients with cancer.
 Watkins JL, Thaker PH, Nick AM et al. Clinical impact of selective and non-selective beta blockers on survival in ovarian cancer patients. Cancer 2015. doi:10.1002/cncr.29392.
 Bunch KP & Annunziata CM. Editorial: Are beta blockers on the therapeutic horizon for ovarian cancer treatment? Cancer 2015. doi:10.1002/cncr.29394.