A Note to Drinkers With Cancer

I grew up in a home with an alcoholic. It was my mother and she had a long history of alcohol abuse, with a reputation for having a ‘hollow leg’ following her from her college days. For the most part, one would only know my mom had a problem if they had a close relationship. Outside the family her weakness was not particularly well known. She was a dignified woman of society, and a very intelligent one to boot. As I was growing up I didn’t know my mom had a problem with alcohol; I spent a lot of time away from home as a boarding school student. But I was aware that mom would go on ‘religious retreats’ a lot more than any of the other parents in my circle of friends. She was a devout Catholic, and in my naive way, assumed that her trips were a facet of her belief. But as my age clicked into double digits, I had it explained to me that mom had a problem. The explanation was necessary because of how often and how violently sick she’d become.

The reason for the illness was not the alcohol, although it ravaged her liver and would eventually contribute strongly to her death. Instead, the illness was the result of her pattern drinking in spite of taking a drug called Disulfiram. The drug’s more common name is Antabuse, and it is prescribed to people with drinking problems as an aversion therapy technique. With Antabuse in the system, even small amounts of alcohol intake would produce cramps, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. So strong was my mother’s desire to drink while simultaneously wanting to quit that she kept herself physically miserable for three years. As I was going into the service, she finally got a pretty good grip on herself and managed to stay sober for nearly 15 years until she passed away in the mid 1970s. During that time she did fall off the wagon a few times, as the expression goes, but the episodes were one day episodes. In that same time period, she got a Masters Degree in Alcohol Studies from Columbia University and became a chairperson for the National Council on Alcoholism. Of course, she was also a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I reveal this family laundry for one purpose only, to explain that the drug Disulfiram is not new to me, and that I am familiar enough with it that I know its name, what it does, and that it can increase the likelihood of psychotic episodes in people with a light predilection towards psychosis. My mom never experienced that –at least not that any of us were aware of, but we were acquainted with some of her AA peers who grappled with it.

Because of this history, I was surprised to see the drug reappear on the medicinal landscape, except this time associated with my own particular illness, Multiple Myeloma. I happen to be a teetotaler; I don’t drink at all. I used to, but I concluded that I really didn’t enjoy it that much, never liking the tastes of liquor, wine or beer, and really didn’t like the symptoms of the days following an evening of social imbibing.

Recent research has discovered that the drug kills Multiple Myeloma cells, and is reported to do so as well as current chemotherapy compounds. It has the positive benefit of not affecting healthy cells, which could prove the drug as a therapy without the most notable side effects of conventional chemotherapy treatment. The following is an abstract, quoted from the National Insitutes of Health website:

Disulfiram, an old drug with new potential therapeutic uses for human haematological malignancies.

Conticello C, Martinetti D, Adamo L, Buccheri S, Giuffrida R, Parrinello N, Lombardo L, Anastasi G, Amato G, Cavalli M, Chiarenza A, De Maria R, Giustolisi R, Gulisano M, Di Raimondo F.


Department of Experimental Oncology, Mediterranean Institute of Oncology, Via Penninazzo 7, Viagrande, Italy.


Disulfiram (DSF) is an aldehyde dehydrogenase inhibitor currently used for the treatment of alcoholism. Here we show that multiple myeloma (MM) cell lines and primary cells from newly diagnosed and relapsed/resistant patients affected by MM, acute myeloid and lymphoblastic leukaemia (AML and ALL) are significantly sensitive to DSF alone and in combination with copper. These effects are present at doses lower than those achievable in vivo after DSF standard administration. The cytotoxic effect achieved by this treatment is comparable to that obtained by conventional chemotherapy and is absent in normal hematopoietic cells. In addition, we found that DSF plus copper induces loss of mithocondrial membrane potential, triggers reactive oxygen species (ROS) production and activate executioner caspases. DSF-copper-induced apoptosis and caspases activation is strongly reversed by antioxidant N-acetylcysteine, thus indicating a critical role of ROS. These results might suggest the use of the old drug DSF, alone or in combination with copper, in the treatment of haematological malignancies.

Copyright © 2012 Wiley‐Liss, Inc.

I’m definitely interested in how this proves itself out. It could be the answer for people like me who cannot easily handle therapies like Bortezomib, Lenalidomide and their partner steroids. But it could be as well another tool in the slowly building arsenal of anti-Myeloma treatments. Much like the recent revelation of the developing of a vaccine that uses the body’s own immune system to combat Multiple Myeloma, it’s much too early to get excited, but it certainly does provide reason to feel that more tools are on the way. Mutiple Myeloma still has no cure, nor has there been any sign of one, save for the dreams of some hopeful researchers. But advances are being made in creating retarding therapies which take a much lower collateral toll on patients.

For those Multiple Myeloma victims out there with an unruly penchant for drinking, this might be a step towards killing two birds with the same stone!