New research suggests that a commonly used mood-stabilizing drug - valproic acid - could help reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancer.

The research team, led by Dr. Johann Christoph Brandes of the Atlanta Veterans Medical Center and Emory University in Atlanta, GA, recently published their findings in the journal Cancer.

Valproic acid (VPA) is a medication used to treat epilepsy and manic-depressive illness, such as bipolar disorder.

However, the medication is able to block histone acetyl transferases (HATs) - enzymes that control gene expression by altering DNA structure. This is a process that occurs in the early stages of many cancers, including lung, bladder, prostate, and head and neck cancers.

Therefore, the researchers investigated whether VPA has the potential to be used as an anticancer agent.

The team analyzed information from the National Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical SAS data set linked to the VA Central Cancer Registry. This involved 439,628 veterans, of which 26,911 were taking VPA for bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, migraine and seizures.

'VPA could prevent 16,000 new cases of head and neck cancer'

Results of the analysis revealed that individuals who had been using VPA for at least 1 year had a 34% lower risk of developing head and neck cancer, compared with those who did not use the medication.

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Researchers say VPA - a drug used to treat migraines, seizures and manic-depressive illness - may be effective in reducing the risk of head and neck cancer.

The researchers found that the risk reduction for head and neck cancer was most pronounced in individuals who took VPA for at least 3 years.

However, the team notes that they were not able to determine the optimal duration for which VPA should be taken because the number of patients in the study with longer exposure was limited.

Furthermore, the investigators found that higher doses of VPA were associated with a greater reduction in head and neck cancer risk. But again, the team was unable to determine the optimal dosage.

According to the National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancers account for approximately 3% of all cancers in the US and mainly occur in people aged over 50. At least 75% of all head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use.

Dr. Brandes says that a 34% risk reduction in head and neck cancer with VPA use equates to around 16,000 new cases and between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths being prevented in the US alone.

He says:

"Head and neck cancer is an important global health crisis, and low-cost and low-toxicity prevention strategies like VPA use have a high potential impact on pain, suffering, costs, and mortality associated with this disease."

The research team found that VPA made no significant difference to the risk of lung, bladder, colon and prostate cancer in the veterans.

They conclude that further research into VPA as an anticancer agent is warranted, "possibly in patients with premalignant lesions of the head and neck."

Medical News Today recently reported on a study detailing the discovery of a gene mutation that causes cancer activity to increase in head and neck cancer.