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Teaching Old Drugs New Tricks

Certain medications can be used to fight different health issues

Pills spilling out of a bottle

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What’s better than developing new drugs? Discovering that old standbys — already proved safe and effective over the years — can be used in new ways to combat old ills. These are four that may be performing beyond their job descriptions.

Viagra to prevent colon cancer

By chemically coaxing blood vessels to relax and fill with blood (that’s how it counters erectile dysfunction), Viagra (sildenafil) has the ability to boost levels of the compound cGMP; this also affects the lining of the intestines in a good way. In one study, mice that drank Viagra-spiked water had half as many polyps — growths that can lead to colon cancer — as those that were given plain water.

Vitamin B to avoid skin cancer

For people with a history of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, a form of vitamin B3 — nicotinamide — can cut risk for new nonmelonoma cancers by 23 percent, Australian researchers report. The American Society for Clinical Oncology called the study “the first clear evidence that skin cancers can be prevented using a simple, inexpensive vitamin, along with sun protection.” B3 helps skin cells repair damaged DNA.

Minoxidil to make arteries stretchier 

You love this medication for your balding noggin. Now researchers say that minoxidil may have brain and heart benefits because it restores the suppleness of blood vessels. In a lab study, arteries relaxed, blood pressure dropped and blood flow to the brain and heart increased in mice that were treated with minoxidil. The effects lasted for weeks after the drug was stopped, researchers say. Up next: human studies.

Blood pressure pills to cut dementia risk

A study found that subjects who kept their systolic blood pressure (the top number) at or below 120 were nearly 20 percent less likely to develop dementia than those whose levels reached 140. The most effective blood pressure treatment may be the new “triple pill,” which combines three proven medications (telmisartan, amlodipine and chlorthalidone), according to a 2018 paper presented at the American College of Cardiology.

Future Pills

From robotic surgeons to ouch-free injections to snoopy sensors, scientists are developing high-tech prototype pills with amazing superpowers. Here’s what’s ahead.

The Gas Sniffer

An inch-long capsule, swallowed by participants in a recent study by Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, it measures gases produced as food travels the length of the digestive tract. Microelectronics inside pick up traces of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. In the future, the capsule may help doctors diagnose digestive disorders and food intolerances, and test the effects of various diets.

The Accordion Pill

Made of pleated, biodegradable, medical-grade film encased in a capsule, the Accordion Pill unfurls when the capsule dissolves in stomach fluid. The pleated film releases the medication, tucked into its folds, for up to 12 hours. The pill was designed as a delivery system for meds, such as the Parkinson’s disease treatment carbidopa/levodopa, that are best absorbed in a slow, steady manner in the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract.

The Shot in a Pill

Hate injections? This experimental injector capsule embeds miniature drug-filled needles in your intestinal wall, which lacks receptors that can register sharp pain. The sugar-based needles then dissolve while the rest of the robotic pill deflates and is eliminated the natural way. The technology could someday replace injections for people with diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions that now require shots.

The Origami Robot

This tiny, biodegradable robot unfolds itself from a frozen capsule and then scoots around in the stomach, controlled by magnets outside the body. So far it has removed foreign objects and repaired wounds in an artificial stomach. Its creators in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory say ingestible robots may someday perform surgeries and deliver drugs, too.