What do flu shots and erectile dysfunction have in common?

The answer: cancer therapy.

Tumor removal is an invasive and stressful process for the body. After surgery, it’s common for some straggling cancer cells to be left behind. With one’s system in such a vulnerable state, the body’s immune system often can’t keep these rogue cells from spreading and causing the cancer to come back.

Researchers from the University of Ottawa may have found an unlikely solution, in the form of a combination therapy that sounds like it was drawn at random from a hat: the flu vaccine and erectile dysfunction drugs.

White blood cells called natural killer (NK) cells have the job of mopping up cancer cells. The problem is, surgery spurs a different immune cell into action, called myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC). These block the NK cells, which is a big problem after cancer surgery. The Canadian researchers found that the drug sildenafil — known to most as Viagra — is especially good at inhibiting MDSCs, allowing the NK cells to go about their business. On top of this, the flu shot gives an extra boost to the NK cells, which spring into action when they think an infection is happening.

In mice, this therapy reduced the spread of cancer by more than 90%. A cohort of 24 human patients will soon be the first to undergo this experimental therapy.

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘Hmm… That’s funny…'” – Isaac Asimov

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