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The antidepressant Sertraline inhibits the growth of cancer cells. This has been demonstrated in a study with laboratory animals carried out at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium). Sertraline acts upon an ‘addicted cell’ that enables different types of cancer to grow.

Serine and glycine

Malignant cells produce a lot of serine and glycine in various forms of cancer, including breast cancer. These two are basically amino acids. This rapid production stimulates the growth of cancer cells to such an extent that the cells become addicted to them.

Professor Kim De Keersmaecker from the Laboratory for Disease Mechanisms in Cancer (LDMC): “If we can slow down that production, we can fight cancer without harming healthy cells.”

Consequently, researchers at KU Leuven sought an existing drug that influences the synthesis of serine and glycine. The drug that emerged as most effective was Sertraline. Sertraline is an antidepressant that is used to treat people with depression and anxiety disorders. Previous research had already pointed towards Sertraline as having a specific anti-cancer activity. Up until now it was not known why.


Researchers Shauni Geeraers (LDMC and CMPG) and Kim Kampen (LDMC): “We were able to demonstrate in this study that Sertraline inhibits the production of serine and glycine. The cancer cells no longer grows as a result. We also found that this substance is most effective in combination with other therapeutic agents. In mice, we see that sertraline in combination with other therapies inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells.”

De Keersmaecker: “Now that we have been able to characterize this for breast cancer, we can examine other types of cancer that also rely on serine and glycine synthesis. This is also the case with T-cell leukemia, certain types of brain cancer, lung cancer and skin cancer. The more different types of tumors we can identify that are sensitive to the antidepressant, the better the prospects are for treating patients with it.”

The future

Although these are the preliminary findings of an experimental study, the researchers believe that Sertraline has a great deal of potential. The researchers are looking for industrial partners to develop this treatment further.

Professor De Keersmacker’s research has been awarded the 2020 Prize by the Simonart Foundation. This prize is awarded to biomedical research that has made a valuable contribution to clinical pharmacology.

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