Beta-blockers work by hindering the action of epinephrine (adrenaline), which causes the “fight or flight” response, and these drugs are commonly prescribed to treat a whole variety of conditions, from high blood pressure to anxiety and abnormal heart rhythms to migraines. A new study finds beta-blockers may have unanticipated anti-cancer properties. The analysis indicates patients with epithelial ovarian cancer may have improved survival rates if they use these drugs along with the usual disease-specific treatments, such as chemotherapy.

“Particularly interesting is the finding that beta-blocker users in the current study [were diagnosed] at a higher stage of disease, had an increased average BMI, and were more likely to be hypertensive. All these factors were associated with decreased survival, yet those who received beta-blockers had either equivalent or improved overall survival,” wrote the authors, led by Dr. Anil Sood of University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Increasing Survival

Ovarian cancer, which rarely occurs in women under 40, begins in the ovaries, the reproductive glands which are found only in women and produce eggs. Risk factors include older age, obesity, and never carrying a pregnancy or first full-term pregnancy after age 35, according to the American Cancer Society's website. Overall, a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 75, yet it is a particularly deadly disease. Notably, ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Naturally, then, any drug that would increase survival is of great interest to patients and their doctors. While past research has suggested beta-blockers might produce positive effects for cancer patients, these previous studies have been too small or they presented somewhat contradictory evidence.

To examine this possibility more carefully, researchers of the current study increased their sample population while narrowing their focus. Specifically the scientists looked at the medical records of 1,425 women with epithelial ovarian cancer — epithelial ovarian, primary peritoneal, or fallopian tube cancers. While their median age was 63 years old, patients ranged in age from 21 to 93 years old. Of the total women, 269 patients received beta-blockers, mostly for high blood pressure, during their cancer treatment regimen. The researchers compared survival length and rates among all the patients.

Crunching the numbers, the researchers discovered patients taking any type of beta-blocker had a median overall survival rate of 47.8 months. By comparison, the women who did not take a beta blocker had a median rate of 42 months. In particular, women taking nonselective beta-blockers appeared to do best overall, the researchers noted. Despite the positive results, no prescriptions will be written in the immediate future.

"Carefully done prospective studies are needed to establish the feasibility of using these medications in cancer patients — such studies are underway," Sood told Medical Daily in an email. "After that, additional studies to prospectively determine the potential benefit of broad beta-blockers should be assessed."

Source: Watkins JL, Thaker PH, Nick AM, et al. Clinical Impact of Selective and Nonselective Beta-Blockers on Survival in Patients With Ovarian Cancer. Cancer. 2015.