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The TRUE Story About Anti-Malarial Drugs and Myeloma Therapy

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In the early 1980s, I was testing anti-malarial drugs such as quinine against cultured myeloma cells in the laboratory. We had developed drug-resistant myeloma cells specifically for this purpose. Several lines of research had revealed that resistance to drugs such as Adriamycin (an anthracycline), a key component of the "VAD" (Velcade, Adriamycin, dexamethasone) chemotherapy regimen popular at the time, was mediated by a cell membrane protein called P-glycoprotein, which conferred an MDR (multi-drug-resistant) phenotype. What P-glycoprotein does is pump drugs such as Adriamycin out of the cell - a protection mechanism against cell toxicity. However, in the case of Adriamycin, we want the Adriamycin to stay in the cell and kill the myeloma.

This can be achieved by giving drugs which block P-glycoprotein! I became interested in this because of another drug called verapamil (a cardiac drug which can slow the heart and reduce blood pressure), which blocks P-glycoprotein. I showed that giving verapamil to patients resistant to VAD chemotherapy produced new responses and remissions at the safe doses of verapamil.

Another drug studied was the anti-malarial drug quinine, which had similar effects, but more challenging side effects. SWOG (Southwestern Oncology Group) study #9210 was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of quinine along with the VAD regimen. I was co-chair of the SWOG myeloma committee at that time. Unfortunately, we had to discontinue the quinine/VAD study because of the unacceptable toxicities.

Meanwhile, a much more promising and safe drug called cyclosporine (an immune suppressive agent) proved to be effective in laboratory studies, and a clinical trial was initiated in collaboration with the HOVON group in the Netherlands. Results were published in the journal The Lancet in 1992, with my friend and colleague Dr. Pieter Sonneveld as the first author. Patients completely resistant to VAD chemotherapy had remarkable sustained benefit with remissions lasting nine months or longer in this relapsed/refractory setting. Although a number of other agents were subsequently tested, these results remain the best utilizing this anti-P-glycoprotein strategy. However, with the advent of novel therapies in the later 1990s, we moved away from this MDR-targeted approach.

But be assured the anti-malarials were rigorously evaluated as part of this strategy. Like many other agents, such as alpha interferon (anti-viral agent), there is always the potential for important anti-myeloma therapy in the appropriate setting in the future. These agents are not neglected, only superseded by much better novel agents. Nonetheless, it may be that one of these agents will provide the solution to the complex puzzle which is myeloma and lead to a cure. I still have my P-glycoprotein files and publications - now stored in the cloud somewhere! Stay tuned for any updates, whenever they occur.


Dr. Durie sincerely appreciates and reads all comments left here. However, he cannot answer specific medical questions and encourages readers to contact the trained IMF InfoLine staff instead. Specific medical questions posted here will be forwarded to the IMF InfoLine. Questions sent to the InfoLine are answered with input from Dr. Durie and/or other scientific advisors and IMWG members as appropriate, but will not be posted here. To contact the IMF InfoLine, call 800-452-CURE, toll-free in the US and Canada, or send an email to infoline@myeloma.org. InfoLine hours are 9 am to 4 pm PT. Thank you.

1 Comment

Dear Dr. Durie,

It is very interesting you mention the role of antimalarial compounds in the context of multiple myeloma. My research group is interested in getting a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms behind a number of neoplastic processes, one of them being MM. We have recently published an article describing a quick and non-invasive method for diagnosing and monitoring MM patients using metabolomics:

"Multiple myeloma patients have a specific serum metabolomic profile that changes after achieving complete remission", Puchades-Carrasco et al., Clin. Cancer Res., 19: 4770-4779, 2013.

Furthermore, we have been working on the development of structure-based approaches against several therapeutically relevant targets. One of them is heparanase, a protein highly expressed in MM. In fact, compounds that interfere with the biological activity of heparanase have been linked to the inhibition of myeloma tumor growth:

"SST0001, a Chemically Modified Heparin, Inhibits Myeloma Growth
and Angiogenesis via Disruption of the Heparanase/Syndecan-1 Axis", Ritchie et al., Clin. Cancer Res., 17: 1382-1393, 2011.

Interestingly enough, in the course of a project focused on the identification of heparanase inhibitors carried out at my lab, we did find that amodiaquine, an antimalarial compound, does bind to heparanase and could be a potential inhibitor of its activity, perhaps providing a complementary mechanism to the one you described in your blog on the effects of antimalarial drugs on MM:

"Hit identification of novel heparanase inhibitors by structure- and ligand-based approaches", Gozalbes et al., Bioorg. Med. Chem., 21: 1944-1951, 2013.

Best regards,


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