New Life for Old Drugs

By Brennen Jensen

photo: Michael Peters working in lab
Neuroscience major Michael Peters ’19 hopes to publish his research on an anti-viral drug that may have applications in cancer treatment.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a relatively rare but particularly pernicious form of cancer. Its precarious location— in the upper part of the throat behind the nose at the base of the skull—makes it extremely difficult to treat operatively. Secondly, its initial symptoms—such as headache, nosebleeds, or a sore throat—are broad and seemingly benign.

“The symptoms are so nonspecific you can’t really diagnose it right away, so a lot of the patients present at advanced stages of the disease,” says senior neuroscience major Michael Peters. “The main way to treat the cancer is through radiation and chemotherapy.”

Since his freshman year, Peters has been working in the Hunterian Neurosurgical Research Laboratory at Hopkins’ School of Medicine. One of the themes of the lab’s research is finding new and expanded uses for FDA-approved drugs. One such candidate is the anti-viral drug Ribavirin, an established treatment for Hepatitis C. Patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma have been shown to have increased amounts of four specific proteins, which is where Ribavirin comes into the picture.

“We know from previous studies and through literature reviews that it targets specifically those four proteins and it works against the effects that they exert,” Peters says. “It might allow for chemotherapy or radiation at lower doses, so that you’re able to have less toxic effects on surrounding tissues, basically increasing the efficacy of the treatment and decreasing the treatment’s negative side effects.”

After Peters’ in vitro work with Ribavirin and cancer cells proved encouraging, he moved on to trials with mice, where it was shown to reduce the volume of cancerous tumors. He’s recently finished a paper on his findings and hopes to get it published. Human clinical trials, if they happen, are a long way off, but Ribavirin’s potential new role looks promising.

“I gained a lot of knowledge about how these different experiments are run, the protocols, and how you can interpret data and what can you do to further the result,” says Peters, who plans to apply to medical school. “Overall, it has just been a good experience to learn how I can get to be at the forefront of how things are discovered.”