Certain experimental cancer medications could help protect the liver following an acetaminophen overdose, according to a new report, detailed on ScienceNews.org. If these findings can be reproduced in clinical trials, the drugs could save lives and avoid the need for emergency transplants. Each year in the US, 100,000 people overdose on acetaminophen, making it the top cause of acute liver failure, and responsible for an average of 150 deaths annually.

The research was published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

These overdoses are currently treated with an antidote, N-acetylcysteine. However, there is only an eight-hour window to administer the treatment in order to avoid death or the need for an emergency transplant. For mice, they need this treatment within four hours to survive. In the study, the experimental cancer drugs were effective as long as 12 hours later for the mice, while untreated mice died within 18 hours.

The study was led by scientists from Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute and from the Medical Research Council Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Normally, the liver is readily able to regenerate itself following most damage, but especially acute, severe damage can be difficult for it to recover from. The researchers found that these drugs help to block the transforming growth factor–ß (TGFß), which stops the liver cells from regenerating and repairing, and is triggered by inflammation resulting from the overdose. Blocking this growth factor increased survival rates, even with a delay in treatment. TGFß also stimulates tumor growth, already making it a target for experimental cancer medications.

“Through our research so far we have identified a potential treatment for acute liver failure, which may prevent the need for transplant,” according to Thomas G. Bird, of Beatson Institute, who led the research.

Any extra time that can be bought for patients has the potential to save lives and limit the need for transplants. Once liver damage has reached a tipping point, “…recovery is unlikely, and, unless liver transplantation occurs, death usually ensues,” according to the study.

Bird notes the importance of progress on treating this form of liver damage:

“New treatments like this, which set liver regeneration free and may prevent the need for liver transplants, would make a huge difference for these patients. They may also allow us to use the livers available for transplantation for other patients with different forms of liver disease who might otherwise die whilst waiting for a suitable liver donor.”

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