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Drug interactions can make certain cancer medications less effective, but what if there was a simple solution to a life-shortening problem? It seems a Dutch research team has found exactly that — in the form of Coca Cola.

What if there was a cancer drug that could drastically increase your chances of survival, but other medications you had to take prevented the drug from being absorbed into your system properly? 

Doctors would have one hell of a dilemma on their hands. This is exactly the case with Erlotinib, a drug often given to lung-cancer patients. 

What's The Problem With Erlotinib?

Erlotinib, also marketed under the trade name Tarceva, is an epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitor that's often prescribed to patients with non-small cell lung cancer, particularly cancer that has already spread. Erlotinib has some clearly proven benefits: it increases overall surival rates by 19 percent and progression-free survival rates by as much as 29 percent, when compared to patients who receive only chemo therapy. 

It also, of course, has some disadvantages. 

The pill has to reach the stomach and disintegrate there before it can be absorbed in the blood stream — but this process is most efficient when the stomach has a high pH value. As many lung-cancer patients take medications to protect the lining of their stomach from other medications they are taking, medications that also happen to lower the stomach's pH value, the efficacy of Erlotinib is reduced. 

This reduced efficacy represents a serious problem that can cut the lives of lung-cancer patients short, and oncologist Ron Matthijsen and hospital pharmacist Roelof van Leeuwen from the Erasmus Medical Center's Cancer Institute in the Netherlands set out to find a practical solution. 

A Simple Solution To A Huge Problem

Just how do you go about creating a temporarily more acidic environment in the stomach, allowing for optimal absorption of Erlotinib but without creating drug interactions that would make other medications a patient is taking less effective?

Roelof van Leeuwen said: "The fact that medications that protect the stomach can drastically lower the absorption of Erlotinib has been recognized for quite some time now. This brings the doctors responsible for treatment in an awkward position: without stomach-protecting medications, the absorption of Erlotinib is good, but the patient can experience dangerous stomach complications. Without medication to protect the lining of the stomach, the absorption is insufficient, allowing the cancer to spread. Hence our study: How can we create a temporarily acidic environment in which Erlotinib can be absorbed efficiently, without causing stomach complications?"

Enter Coca Cola. What? Yes, Coca Cola. 

Drinking a glass of coke with Erlotinib was found to create a much more acidic environment for a short amount of time, and the Dutch research team found that Erlotinib is absorbed more easily when patients swallow the pill with coke rather than water. 

Testing their hypothesis on 28 patients, the research team found that:

  • Among the 14 patients who were using medications to protect the lining of the stomach, a 40 percent increased absorption rate of Erlotinib was observed on average, which some patients absorbing a total of 100 percent more.
  • Patients who were not using medications to protect the lining of their stomach experienced a slightly increased absorption rate as well, but the difference was minimal. 
The research team fully expects to see similar results with other cancer medications. The team hasn't researched whether other soft drinks could have the same effect as Coca Cola.
The new findings may well prove to be revolutionary, though news about them is still very much limited to the Netherlands — and even there, doctors are warning patients not to start taking Erlotinib and similar drugs with coke before their doctor tells them to. Still, if you or a loved one are affected by cancer and you take Erlotinib or another epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitor, watch this space.

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