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New Uses for Old Drugs

Often, drugs that treat more than one condition do so by acting on the same biological pathway, or target.

By Timothy Gower // Summer 2009

Often, drugs that treat more than one condition do so by acting on the same biological pathway, or target. Aspirin, for example, blocks production of prostaglandins, which not only cause aches and soreness by sensitizing pain receptors and inducing inflammation but also raise the risk of heart attack by causing platelets to clot. But some multitalented drugs appear to hit more than one target, sometimes leading to very different uses.




Allergic rhinitis Treats hay fever and other allergies by blocking histamine, which promotes nasal and bronchial mucus

Malaria Kills malaria-causing parasites that are resistant to usual therapy; under study



Various infections Acts as an antibacterial and is useful in treating infections of the lower respiratory tract, urinary tract, ear, and others

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other neurological diseases Appears to lower levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate; under study



Osteoporosis Activates estrogen receptors in bones, lending greater strength and density

Breast cancer Blocks estrogen receptors in breast tissue, preventing the hormone from promoting tumor growth



Fungal infections Kills organisms that cause a variety of fungal infections, such as aspergillosis, blastomycosis, histoplasmosis and candidiasis

Cancer May destroy blood vessels that feed tumors; under study



Cancer Blocks the enzyme involved in the growth of malignant cells

Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders Reduces inflammation, possibly by decreasing excessive immune system activity


Morning sickness Acted as a sedative in a formulation prescribed to pregnant women before being banned for causing birth defects

Multiple myeloma Appears to slow the growth of tumor cells and to prevent bone marrow destruction


Born Again

drug repurposing

Creating a medicine from scratch takes years and may cost $1 billion. One alternative: recycling failed compounds for new applications.

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