New research suggests that beta blockers – a form of medication typically used to reduce blood high blood pressure – could also have anticancer properties that warrant further investigation.

An image of the female reproductive system.Share on Pinterest
Women with ovarian cancer who also took nonselective beta blockers had the highest median survival time out of the patients involved in the study.

The study, published in Cancer, discovered that the use of beta blockers in women with ovarian cancer was linked to longer overall survival from the disease.

“We found that patients taking a broad, or nonselective, beta blocker were the ones who derived the most benefit compared with those who were not taking a beta blocker or those who were taking a beta-1-selective medication,” reports lead author Dr. Anil Sood, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Previous research has suggested that stress hormones could play a role in the development of cancer. While beta blockers are usually prescribed to treat heart-related conditions, they can also affect the body’s stress response.

Other studies have hinted at the possibility that beta blockers could affect the survival of patients with ovarian cancer. In one laboratory study in particular, the effect of epinephrine in increasing the invasive potential of ovarian cancer cells was negated by a nonselective beta blocker called propranolol.

However, many studies investigating the use of beta blockers have come to conflicting conclusions – a fact that the researchers believe may be due to small patient numbers.

For the new study, Dr. Sood and colleagues analyzed the medical records of 1,425 women from 2000-2010 who were treated for ovarian cancer at several different medical centers. Of these patients, 193 were taking beta-1 adrenergic receptor (ADRB1) selective agents beta blockers and 76 were receiving nonselective beta antagonists beta blockers.

The median survival time for patients who did not receive beta blockers was 42 months, whereas for patients who received any form of beta blocker, the median survival time was 47.8 months.

Among the patients who received nonselective beta blockers, the median survival time was 94.9 months. This figure was significantly higher than the median survival time for patients receiving ADRB1 selective agents, which the researchers measured as 38 months.

Fast facts about beta blockers
  • Beta blockers are also known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents
  • They work by blocking the effects of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline
  • Beta blockers can also improve blood flow by helping blood vessels open up.

Learn more about beta blockers

The researchers found that patients with hypertension typically survived for shorter times than patients without hypertension. Even among the patients with hypertension, however, the researchers observed a longer median survival time among nonselective beta blocker users (90 months) compared with nonusers (38.2 months).

“Some of the prior studies have had conflicting data regarding the use of beta blockers and cancer patient outcomes. This may, in part, be since the type of beta blocker medication was not considered,” states Dr. Sood. “To our knowledge, the current study is the first to examine the relationships with patient outcomes based on specific types of beta blockers.”

The researchers write that, at present, two clinical trials are underway investigating the combination of chemotherapy and variable doses of propranolol on cancer biology alongside the impact that nonselective beta blockers have on stress modulators in patients with newly diagnosed ovarian cancer.

Data from these trials will help researchers to design adequately powered, prospective, randomized clinical trials to determine whether nonselective beta blockers can improve outcomes for patients with ovarian cancer, they conclude.

In an accompanying editorial, Kristen Bunch, of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Dr. Christina Annunciate, of the National Cancer Institute, point out that beta blockers can cause significant side effects in some patients, which could prevent their widespread use in patients with ovarian cancer.

One possible alternative they suggest is the use of stress reduction programs, which could also reduce the risk of several other health problems. Earlier in the year, Medical News Today ran a Spotlight feature looking at some of the most surprising implications that stress has for health.