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Viagra Use Could Increase Skin Cancer Risk by 20 Percent

Jun 24, 2015

Men who use Viagra and similar drugs for erectile dysfunction could be at greater risk of developing skin cancer, according to a new study.

A study of more than 4,000 men in Sweden found that those who were prescribed a single course of such drugs were one third more likely to develop a malignant melanoma. The risk was raised by 20 percent for men who had multiple prescriptions, the (U.K.) Telegraph reports.

Though the risk is still small—a one in 25 chance of developing cancer compared with the usual one in 33 risk—New York University researchers said the findings were still statistically significant. “The use of PDE5 inhibitors was associated with a modest but significant increased risk of malignant melanoma,” said Dr. Stacy Loeb of New York University, who is one of the study’s authors. The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Drugs like Viagra (sildenafil) and Cialis (tadalafil) work by turning off the enzyme PDE5, a chemical that takes away an erection by limiting blood supply to the penis. Scientists think PDE5 plays an important role in preventing the spread of skin cancer. Malignant melanoma is fuelled by a faulty gene (BRAF) that suppresses the enzyme, according to the Telegraph. Viagra and drugs like it could be mimicking the effect of the mutated BRAF gene.

Viagra was originally developed by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to treat high blood pressure and angina but was found to be ineffective for these conditions, the Telegraph reports. Doctors noticed that use of the drug led to sustained erections—the result of temporarily increasing blood flow to the penis—and it was then launched as a drug to treat erectile dysfunction.

Prof. Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the risk of malignant melanoma associated with erectile dysfunction drugs “may also be associated with exposure to sunlight. It may be the wealthy who are able to travel to the sun in Sweden’s winter! It may be that those who travel are also more likely to use ED drugs.” Prof. Chris Chapple, a urological surgeon, secretary general of the European Association of Urology, and an honorary professor at Sheffield Hallam University, said there is “a lack of an association between dosing and incidence.” At this time, Chapple does not recommend “any change in current clinical practice relating to the use of [Viagra] for the treatment of erectile dysfunction,” according to the Telegraph. A spokesman for Pfizer said the company is “committed to ensuring patient safety” and evaluates “any adverse events reported to Pfizer directly or indirectly through secondary sources."


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