A commonly used mood stabilising drug may help prevent head and neck cancer, a new study reveals. 

Valproic acid (VPA) is currently prescribed as an anti-seizure medication and mood stabiliser in the US, but it is also being studied as an anticancer agent because it inhibits histone acetyl transferases. This help to control gene expression by changing DNA structure.

Dr Johann Christoph Brandes, of Emory University in Atlanta, led a team that assessed the anticancer effects of VPA in a study of 439,628 war veterans, of whom 26,911 were taking the medication for bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, migraines, and seizures.

Veterans who took VPA for at least one year had a 34% lower risk of developing head and neck cancer compared with those who did not take the medication. Higher doses and longer duration of VPA use seemed to provide additional benefits. No significant differences were observed for lung, bladder, colon, and prostate cancer incidences.

“A 34% risk reduction for the development of head and neck cancer with VPA use could result in the prevention of up to 16,000 new cases and 3,000 to 4,000 annual deaths in the US alone,” Dr. Brandes said. “Head and neck cancer is an important global health crisis, and low cost and low toxicity prevention strategies like VPA use have a high potential impact on pain, suffering, costs, and mortality associated with this disease.”

The study is published in CANCER a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.