Finding new jobs for existing drugs can save expense of development

An illustration that show drug capsules applying for new employment as repurposed drugs

Image: Academic Affairs Communications, Research Communications and Public Relations

Many scientists across the United States are rethinking the approach to pharmaceutical creation. Rather than starting from a blank slate, it has become much more efficient—in both time and money—to repurpose drugs that have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, using them in novel ways to fight disease.

For example, researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center are using ketamine, a drug that already exists as an anesthetic, to treat pain.

“It’s a lot more economical to repurpose drugs than to take a new drug and make it from scratch,” said David E. Potter, professor and chair of pharmaceutical sciences at the Texas A&M Rangel College of Pharmacy, “not only in terms of dollars, but also in terms of time.” And because a treatment is less costly to develop, it should also be more affordable for the patient.

Michelle Hook, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, adds, “I think repurposing drugs is a good idea, because it is more rapid in terms of translation, and because you already know the side effects to some extent.”

In the case of ketamine, the drug’s hallucinogenic effects have led to it becoming a “club drug.” Although ketamine has been used as a fast-acting anesthesia in clinical settings for the last five decades, its mind-altering side effects at higher doses make it a popular street drug.

Researchers, including Potter and Hook, are now interested in using ketamine to treat pain, depression and tinnitus (or ringing in the ears), and they believe that it can be safe and effective at the correct doses.

“We’re doing this principally for pain, but when people have chronic pain, they also commonly develop varying degrees of depression,” Potter said. “Ketamine treats two diseases with one drug.”

The drugemay also be helpful for post-traumatic stress disorder and has been shown to be helpful for tinnitus. “It seems the more severe the tinnitus, the better it works,” Potter said, “because many of the same problems—pain and phantom noises—can predispose to depression and PTSD.”

No approved drug currently exists on the market for tinnitus, so it’s an unmet need, Potter said. “The group that suffers from tinnitus the most is soldiers out on the battlefield,” he continued. “We hope that ketamine will relieve pain, depression and—if they suffer from it—tinnitus as well.”

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