'Foxgloves', one of Britain's most popular flowers, could soon be used as treatment to stop spread of breast cancer, suggests a new study.
Scientists in the U.S. have revealed that digoxin, a long-established drug based on chemicals found in foxglove, can block the production of a protein called HIF-1, which has been held responsible for the spread of breast cancer.
Digoxin has been used for decades to treat conditions like congestive heart failure and irregular heartbeats and the latest discovery, by a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, has suggested that this cheap and easily available medicine could also be used in the fight against cancer.
"This is really exciting," the Daily Mail quoted research leader Dr Gregg Semenza, from the Institute for Cell Engineering at the university as saying.
"Our findings warrant clinical trials to determine if the doses (used in animal studies) are enough to sufficiently block HIF-1 and slow breast cancer growth and spread."
To see how the HIF-1 protein behaved when exposed to digoxin, researchers transplanted human breast cancer cells into mice and, two weeks later, gave them daily injections of either the drug itself or saline.
The study revealed that those who were given digoxin had fewer cancer cells spread to the lungs - one of the major sites that breast tumors migrate to - and tumors that had spread were smaller than in the saline group.
The findings could be even more significant because the research team found evidence that cancer cells start to spread from the breast to the lung much before than was previously thought.
This could indicate that if further trials verify the benefits of the drug, it is possible it could be routinely used in women with aggressive tumors to try and reduce the risk of them spreading.
Dr Caitlin Palframan, from Breakthrough Breast Cancer, insisted that the research is still in its early stages and clinical trials are needed to see if the drug can slow breast cancer growth and spread in humans.
"However, it is exciting as digoxin has been used for decades in medical treatment with a proven safety record."
"We hope it means clinical trials will move quickly, allowing us to learn more about whether this approach will work to help prolong lives," Dr Palframan added.