Would you use a skin cancer cream to smooth out your facial wrinkles? Take a baldness drug to protect against prostate cancer? Or use Viagra to help avoid an amputation?
While most people think of medicines as single-role actors, there are a growing number of drugs that hold the potential for dual uses. Not all of these drugs are available for these hidden uses. But the so-called "off-label" use of medicines accounts for about one-fifth of all prescriptions, according to a study released last April in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Many such applications come with their fair share of controversy.
Though the hair-loss drug finasteride is recommended by some medical organizations as a preventative measure against prostate cancer, many doctors say that such a use is inefficient and ill-advised.
In the case of Viagra, which was administered to at least one patient to stimulate blood flow and help prevent amputation, no conclusive studies yet exist that confirm a definite benefit when used in patients at risk of amputation.
But in many other cases, the alternative uses are well-known in the medical community -- though perhaps not among the general public -- and are regularly exploited.
And while a November article in the journal Pharmacotherapy warned doctors to exercise more scrutiny in their prescription of drugs for purposes other than their primary intended use, it is clear that some of these MacGyvers of the pharmaceutical world are destined for double duty in the years to come.
Efudex, a skin cream that has been used for years to combat the early stages of skin cancer, may one day have a second use as a wrinkle-buster.
So suggests a small study of 21 subjects, commissioned by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which makes the cream. The study is published in the June issue of the journal Archives of Dermatology.
Study participants who applied the cream twice daily for two weeks were able to reduce the number of potentially pre-cancerous spots on their faces. But in addition to this, researchers also found through clinical evaluation that the subjects enjoyed other improvements in aging-related damage, including fewer wrinkles, fewer dark skin spots and less hyperpigmentation.
The drug, of course, also had side effects -- primarily in the form of redness and irritation shortly after the application of the cream. And even though a number of currently available cosmetic skin treatments have similar or worse side effects, for some consumers these downsides could outweigh the benefits.
"It is possible that for some patients, topical fluorouracil may have an important role against photo-aging," lead study author Dr. Daniel Sachs of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor said in a press release. "For others, however, it may not be cosmetically acceptable given that a standard course of therapy may last two to three weeks and the ensuing reaction can persist for several more weeks."
Still, the idea that the drug could one day enter the cosmetic armamentarium is not an outlandish one.
"Undoubtedly, there will be patients who desire a therapy such as topical fluorouracil for cosmetic purposes given the relatively low cost of this therapy compared with ... laser resurfacing," Sachs said.