Western University of Health Sciences researchers received National Institutes of Health funding to potentially repurpose a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure to protect against the sun-induced cell damage that leads to skin cancer. 

College of Pharmacy (COP) Associate Professor Ying Huang, MD, PhD, was awarded $409,223 in NIH funding through an R15 grant titled “Topical Delivery of Non-β-blocking R-carvedilol for Prevention of UV-induced Skin Cancer.” 

This three-year project addresses the unmet need of skin cancer, the most common type of cancer worldwide. The proposed studies aim to repurpose R-carvedilol, an enantiomer in the racemic β-blocker carvedilol, an FDA-approved cardiovascular drug, for skin cancer prevention. COP Associate Professor Bradley Andresen, PhD, FAHA, COP Professor Jeffrey Wang, PhD, and College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Professor Cyrus Parsa, DO, serve as co-investigators. 

The project evolved from a conversation Dr. Huang had with her colleague, Dr. Andresen, about whether βblockers might induce cancer. Huang discovered that the βblocker carvedilol – typically used to treat high blood pressure – does not induce cancer. More importantly, her team found that carvedilol prevents ultraviolet (UV)-induced skin cancer in cell culture and in mice. 

Because carvedilol is commonly used to reduce heart rate and blood pressure in hypertensive patients, these results would be considered unwanted effects when using the βblocker for anti-cancer purposes. 

Huang’s team is investigating potential solutions to this, including a topical delivery system so the βblocker does not enter a person’s circulation and separating carvedilol into two isomers.  

“This discovery is exciting because nobody has ever tried using the isomer, one part of the commercial drug, to examine this pharmacological effect,” Huang said. “There is still a lot of work to do. For example, we need to test if using a pure isomer is still safe. 

“We are trying to make an effective and safe skin product, like a cream, similar to sunscreen but better than sunscreen because we have data to show that applied after exposure to the sun, carvedilol can prevent skin cancer,” Huang added. 

The NIH funding will allow further investigation into the safety of the product, and the team will also work on plans for a clinical study.