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Antifungal drug may treat common skin cancer, study finds

An inexpensive antifungal pill that’s already on the market may help treat a very common type of skin cancer, researchers reported Monday.

Patients with basal cell carcinoma who took the pills for between a month and 10 weeks saw their tumors shrink by about 24 percent, a team at Stanford University in California reported.

It was a small group and very short experiment, but their findings build on other studies suggesting that itraconazole can help shrink a range of tumors, including lung and prostate tumors.

The experiment confirmed that the drug works by interfering with a process that cancer cells use to develop, called the hedgehog pathway, the researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Other studies have shown the drug can have a second role in stopping the process, called angiogenesis, that cancer cells use to grow blood vessels to feed themselves.

Dr. Jean Tang, an associate professor of dermatology at Stanford, and colleagues and students tested 29 patients with basal cell carcinoma, which is diagnosed in 3 million people a year. In patients given two itraconazole pills a day for a month, and in patients given a lower dose for 10 weeks, tumors shrank by nearly a quarter, they reported.

More testing will clearly be needed but the benefits of a cheap and well-tested drug are obvious, Tang said. “New drugs cost about $800 million and an average of 10 years to develop,” Tang said. “We are shortcutting the process by using a drug that’s already been around for 25 years and given to tens of thousands of people.”

Side effects of the drug are usually mild but can in rare cases be serious. They include liver and heart failure.

Basal cell carcinoma is a very slow growing tumor and in most cases, cutting away the lesion cures the patient. But in very rare cases it can spread, and then patients need drug treatment, too.