Could Viagra Cure This Boy’s Giant Tumor?

Viagra revolutionized treatment of ED, and has turned out to have many other medical uses.
Viagra revolutionized treatment of ED, and has turned out to have many other medical uses.
Viagra took the world by storm in 1998 when it was first sold as a treatment for erectile dysfunction (ED).

And while the drug gained most of its fame as an ED treatment, sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, is actually proving to have many other uses, for treating conditions from pulmonary hypertension to altitude sickness. Trials are even beginning on sildenafil as a treatment for certain types of fetal growth problems in pregnant women. Doctors have recently found that it may be helpful in treating a type of lymphatic system abnormality called lymphangioma that primarily affects infants.

What Are Lymphangiomas?

Lymphangiomas affect the lymphatic system, which is the system of vessels in the body that return excess fluids from various tissues to the body’s venous system. A lymphangioma is a malformation that can affect any part of the body and can happen at any age. However, 90% of lymphangiomas occur in children under age 2, and they usually affect the head and neck. Children may be born with a lymphangioma, or may acquire it. The congenital form is often associated with chromosome abnormalities. The condition can be diagnosed before birth with ultrasound images. Lymphangiomas that are acquired may be the result of lymphatic obstruction, inflammation, or trauma. They are not cancer and don’t become malignant. In many people they are mainly a cosmetic problem.

Why Are Lymphangiomas So Potentially Dangerous?

Sometimes lymphangiomas press upon critical organs, causing complications like respiratory distress when, for example, the airway is compressed. Unfortunately, treatments, which may include aspiration of fluid, surgery, or laser ablation are not always very effective, and surgical complications when a lymphangioma is removed may include damage to nearby anatomical structures. They can also return after surgical excision.

In some cases, like that of a 10-year-old boy in Mexico, the growth is life-threatening. Jose Serrano suffered from lymphagioma that could have been fatal because of pressure on his windpipe. Doctors want to surgically remove the growth eventually, but Jose’s lymphangioma was so large that doctors wanted to shrink the growth before attempting to operate, to reduce the threat of complications. Jose has started taking Viagra, which has the potential to shrink the growth enough that the chances for successful surgery are higher.

Though the precise mechanism is not yet known, doctors have found that sildenafil can shrink lymphangiomas in children.
How Does Viagra Treat Lymphangiomas?

Doctors at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto were using sildenafil in treating a child who had pulmonary hypertension. This child happened to have a lymphangioma as well, and doctors noticed that after treatment with the drug, the lymphangioma shrank significantly. Two other children at Packard who had lymphangiomas were also treated with sildenafil, and reportedly responded favorably. Magnetic resonance (MRI) scans and photos published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2012 showed a dramatic difference before and after three children with lymphangiomas were treated with sildenafil.

Though how sildenafil works on lymphangiomas is not yet known, doctors hypothesize that the relaxation of smooth muscle lining lymphatic vessels may result in decompression of the lymphangioma tissue, perhaps allowing secondary lymphatic vessels to open and drain the growth. Until this unexpected effect of sildenafil was discovered by accident, there has been no drug treatment for lymphangiomas, so doctors have been enthusiastic about studying this use of sildenafil to learn more.

The history of Viagra has been shaped by a series of accidental and speculative discoveries about what sildenafil can treat. It was originally created as a treatment for hypertension and angina, but while it wasn’t a great drug for those conditions, the surprise discovery of its effects on ED turned it into one of the best selling drugs in the world. With the discovery that sildenafil could be an effective drug treatment for the difficult-to-treat condition of lymphangioma, physicians have once again accidentally discovered a possibly game-changing use for the drug.

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Photo Credits: Ambro / freedigitalphotos.net, Sura Nualpradid / freedigitalphotos.net

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