Benefits 'far outweigh' reported side-effects of chemotherapy drug

In collaboration with the Press Association

Research which suggests a chemotherapy drug used to treat cancer patients can cause serious brain damage needs to be put into context, it has been asserted. 

A study which appears in the Journal of Biology suggested that 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), a drug used for over 40 years to treat cancer, can kill cells in the central nervous system. However, even the authors of the study have recognised that 5-FU will continue to be used as a treatment for cancer, and have used the results of the study to call for a further investigation into the impact of the drug, rather than for cancer patients to forgo standard treatment. 

"Because these treatments will clearly remain the standard of care for many years to come, it is critical that we understand their precise impact on the central nervous system, and then use this knowledge as the basis for discovering means of preventing such side effects," commented Dr Mark Noble, director of the University of Rochester Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute and senior author of the study. 

This view was echoed by Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK's lead cancer information nurse, who also pointed out that as the results of the study are based on tests on mice they may not tell the full story. He also stressed that the drug has significant benefits. 

"We must note that this research has taken place on mice and stem cells so it does not necessarily equate to real people's experiences of treatment," Mr Ledwick said. "These studies look at the science behind the observed side-effects of chemotherapy treatments which will help doctors continue to improve treatments for the future. But it must be remembered that this drug can offer significant benefits for people who need it, which far outweigh the changes which some patients report." 

What's more, Dr Noble noted that not all patients are adversely affected by the drug, suggesting that more research needs to be done to determine why some are more vulnerable than others and how side effects can be avoided. 5-FU is currently used to treat breast, ovarian, stomach, colon, and pancreatic cancer, as well as other forms of the disease.