Drug repurposing | Antikankerfonds (NL)
Drug repurposing is one of the focus areas of the Anticancer Fund

Drug repurposing

In the battle against cancer, drug repurposing represents a promising source of novel therapies. The Anticancer Fund believes repurposing existing medicines offers a safe, effective and affordable way to increase cancer patients’ treatment options.

What is drug repurposing?

Drug repurposing, also known as drug repositioning, is the strategy of using existing licensed drugs for new medical uses. It’s a drug development strategy that was already becoming more widespread before COVID-19 revealed its potential to the wider community. 

Traditionally, discovering and bringing a new drug to the market takes 12 to 15 years and requires a budget of 1 to 2 billion dollars. Drug repurposing has the potential to decrease both the time-frame and the costs as existing data on how a drug can be used, including safety and toxicology data, reduces the need for early phases of drug discovery, such as the need for safety trials. Some studies have suggested that the time to market may be halved and the costs reduced even more – and with a reduced risk of failure. 

The untapped potential of non-cancer drugs

Over 300 non-cancer drugs have shown some published evidence of anticancer effects so far. These drugs are candidates for development as new cancer therapeutics.
At the Anticancer Fund we are constantly reviewing the published scientific data to identify these candidate drugs. We have listed them in an open-access database to help encourage scientists working on cancer worldwide to consider using these drugs in their research projects.

This curated list is available for free.

exisiting drugs have shown some clear evidence of anticancer activity
(Note: this video was made in 2018, some figures might be outdated by now)

Our trials in this focus area

As an impressive number of existing drugs have the potential to be effective in treating cancer, there is a huge need to evaluate this in well-designed clinical trials. The Anticancer Fund is constantly looking for new opportunities to study promising repurposed drugs in a clinical setting where there is a medical need.

Discover our trials in drug repurposing.

Latest news about drug repurposing in oncology

In addition to identifying the existing drugs which have shown some evidence of anticancer activity and to coordinating clinical trials, we also compile the scientific findings on repurposing drugs in oncology in a monthly newsletter. Our intention is to help bring these drugs to the attention of the broader cancer research community.

Please get in touch if you’re interested in subscribing to the newsletter.

What the outbreak of COVID-19 meant to drug repurposing

In June 2020 we organised a webinar to raise awareness of the untapped potential of repurposed drugs in the treatment of cancer against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. EU policy makers, researchers, physicians and patients discussed whether the corona crisis was driving us towards a paradigm shift in the way cancer treatments are researched, developed and delivered. Our intention was to point out the benefits of drug repurposing for public health to European decision makers. 

You can read an article published by Cancer World after the event and its debate here.

Webinar: Drug repurposing for cancer in the covid-19 era

Europe takes drug repurposing on board

A few months after our webinar, drug repurposing was announced as part of the New Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe and was also mentioned in Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, published in February 2021: the European Commission decided to launch an EU platform to support the repurposing of existing medicines, using digital tools.

Building on experiences with repurposing of medicines to treat COVID-19, an additional project will be initiated by the European Commission to rapidly test existing molecules and new drug combinations with High-Performance Computing. Starting with cancers with poor prognosis and rare cancers, this will leverage promising cancer treatments.

The Anticancer Fund will keep track of these projects and will make sure drug repurposing remains on the European agenda.

We first explained in 2017 to European decision makers that drug repurposing has the potential to make clinically important contributions to oncology, and moreover could offer important economic and societal benefits for more sustainable healthcare systems in the long term in a Policy Paper. This was followed by a Manifesto in 2019, that we still regularly update and that is endorsed by many peer organisations.

An innovative revision of cancer treatment

The implementation of drug repurposing into standard cancer care isn’t obvious. Due to the lack of commercial prospects, the use of ‘old’ drugs for new indications is typically not considered ‘sexy’ or innovative. That’s why Ciska Verbaanderd, PhD student at the University of Leuven and associate of the Anticancer Fund, wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic. She aimed to bridge the gap between clinical research and practice in cancer drug repurposing. She clearly formulated recommendations to address the challenges. 

  • Support data sharing and open science initiatives in drug repurposing

  • Promote independent clinical research with repurposed medicines 

  • Develop a collaborative framework to bring new uses of drugs on-label 

  • Introduce legal changes and create incentives to encourage new uses on-label

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