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New discovery may lead to cheap cure for liver cancer

TAIPEI -- A team of Taiwanese researchers have found a potential remedy for liver cancer in a drug used for treating arrhythmia that can be much cheaper and less toxic than existing treatments.

The arrhythmia drug amiodarone has been shown through animal testing to be able to suppress liver tumors by boosting autophagy — the process of cells breaking down unnecessary components, according to Liu Hsiao-sheng, a professor of microbiology and immunology at National Cheng Kung University, who led the research.

Autophagy plays an important role in many types of cancer, and past studies have shown reduced autophagy in liver cancer patients, Liu said Wednesday as he unveiled the findings at a press conference at the university.

Liu said his team also found that among the 46 liver cancer patients in Taiwan they studied, those with reduced autophagy had a lower survival rate after surgery, which led to suspicions about the role autophagy plays in inhibiting cancer and inspired his team to scour the market for drugs that boost the process.

Autophagy has been shown to have dual roles in cancer. One is to suppress tumors by preventing the accumulation of damaged proteins and organelles, while the other is to boost the growth of established tumors by promoting cell survival, although research has shown that it is more likely to be used as a tumor suppressor.

The team conducted animal testing with several drugs on the market and found amiodarone to be able to boost autophagy, in turn suppressing the growth of liver tumors.

Once it has passed clinical trials, the arrhythmia drug promises to reduce the hefty medical bills for liver cancer patients, according to Liu.

Existing liver cancer drugs cost over NT$1,500 (US$49.8) per pill, which could amount to NT$40,000-NT$50,000 in costs per patient per month.

By contrast, amiodarone costs just NT$8 per pill, Liu said.

Liu said amiodarone has the potential to be developed into a liver cancer drug, noting that it is also less toxic than other drugs used for treating liver cancer, which accounts for the second highest number of cancer deaths in Taiwan.

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