A miscarriage drug routinely given to women for decades may result in an increased risk of cancer in the child, a recent study says.
The drug, 17α-hydroxyprogesterone caproate (17-OHPC), was much more common in the 1950s and 1960s, but doctors still prescribe it to help avoid preterm births. Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center say 17-OHPC is a synthetic progestogen, which means that it causes the womb to grow larger during pregnancy. This helps to prevent early contractions and a subsequent miscarriage.
“Children who were born to women who received the drug during pregnancy have double the rate of cancer across their lifetime compared to children born to women who did not take this drug,” says lead study author Dr. Caitlin Murphy, an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health, in a university release. “We have seen cancers like colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, and many others increasing in people born in and after the 1960s, and no one really knows why.”
Researchers reviewed two datasets to reach these conclusions. They included information from the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan pertaining to women receiving prenatal care between June 1959 and June 1967, and the California Cancer Registry which allowed the team to trace cancer outcomes among their offspring through 2019.
17-OHPC doubles cancer risk
Among a total of 18,751 children born in the 50s and 60s, researchers noted 1,008 cases of cancer. Meanwhile, the mothers of 234 of those individuals received 17-OHPC while pregnant. Those with exposure to the drug while in the womb were more than twice as likely to develop cancer than offspring whose mothers did not take the drug. In all, 65 percent of cancer cases occurred before the individual turned 50 years-old.
“Our findings suggest taking this drug during pregnancy can disrupt early development, which may increase risk of cancer decades later,” Dr. Murphy notes. “With this drug, we are seeing the effects of a synthetic hormone. Things that happened to us in the womb, or exposures in utero, are important risk factors for developing cancer many decades after we’re born.”
Dr. Murphy adds this is not the first sign that 17-OHPC is dangerous and unnecessary. A recent randomized trial reports there are no real benefits of taking 17-OHPC, nor does it help prevent miscarriages. In October 2020, the FDA proposed removing 17-OHPC from the market entirely.
The study is published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.