‘Rescued’ Drug Could Be Safer Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

An abandoned drug for stroke treatment may provide a safer treatment than lithium in treating bipolar disorder.

A drug destined for the scrap heap has been rescued by Oxford scientists, who may have found it a new role in treating bipolar disorder.

A team from Oxford University, led by Dr Grant Churchill and Dr Sridhar Vasudevan of the Department of Pharmacology, in collaboration with Professor Phil Cowen of the Department of Psychiatry, used a database of ‘failed’ drugs, found to be safe but ineffective for their proposed use, to identify ebselen as a possible alternative to lithium, the main treatment for people who are bipolar.

Ebselen was under development as a treatment for stroke, but was abandoned by its manufacturer in the final phase of clinical trials. However, those trials proved that the drug was safe for use in humans. Initial tests of ebselen as a treatment for bipolar disorder were carried out in mice. That research, reported in early 2014, found that results were promising, so the researchers were able to use the existing safety information to fast track an initial trial of ebselen in people.

Dr Grant Churchill explained: ‘Lithium has been used for over 60 years and remains the most effective treatment for bipolar disorder, but suffers from toxicity and has many side effects. It is toxic at only twice the right dose and can cause weight gain and thirst. Long-term lithium use can lead to kidney damage. The side effects also encourage people to stop taking it, which means they can relapse.

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