Beta blockers with stethoscope

Roswell Park Sees Suggestion of Benefit in First Clinical Trial to Combine Beta-Blocker and Checkpoint Inhibitor

Team reports results from safety study of propranolol with pembrolizumab in patients with metastatic melanoma

  • Earlier work from Roswell Park showed that stress can inhibit cancer treatment
  • Team asks: Can adding beta blocker to standard immunotherapy improve outcomes?
  • Results show that the combination is safe; larger study underway

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The same biochemical triggers that spur a “fight or flight” response when we encounter threats may help tumor cells to thrive. A team of researchers from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is looking at ways to disrupt that dynamic so that cancer treatments can be more effective. Their latest work, published today in Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, suggests that a drug widely prescribed to control blood pressure may improve patients’ response to cancer immunotherapy.

The new publication reports results from the first prospective clinical trial to show that the beta-blocker propranolol is safe in combination with pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy also known as Keytruda that has become standard therapy for patients newly diagnosed with advanced or metastatic melanoma. The researchers also document preliminary evidence that these two drugs work together to engage the immune system against tumor cells.  

Shipra Gandhi, MD
Dr. Shipra Gandhi, one of the lead authors on new research suggesting benefits for melanoma patients who take a beta-blocker along with their cancer immunotherapy.

“We know that stress can have a significant negative effects on health, but the extent to which stress may impact the outcome of cancer therapy is not well understood at all. So building on the compelling preclinical work of our colleague Dr. Elizabeth Repasky documenting the role of adrenergic stress in the immune response to cancer, we set out to better understand this relationship and to explore its implications for cancer treatment,” says Shipra Gandhi, MD, Assistant Professor of Oncology at Roswell Park and co-first author on the new study.

In a small phase 1 study at Roswell Park, patients with newly diagnosed metastatic melanoma were given escalating doses of propranolol, which blocks the ability of stress hormones to interact with cells, in addition to standard treatment with the anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab. The team reports that this combination is safe and shows preliminary evidence of promising activity, demonstrating higher anticancer responses than expected with standard therapy alone.

The findings also suggest that stress reduction could be an important component to achieving optimal stimulation of a patient’s immune system and reducing tumor growth.

“In repurposing propranolol, which has been in use for decades to treat or prevent conditions including migraine headache and various heart problems, for this study in melanoma, we’ve gained important insights on how to manage stress in people with  cancer — who can face dangerously elevated levels of mental and physical stress related to their diagnosis and treatment,” says Manu Pandey, MBBS, Hematology-Oncology Fellow at Roswell Park and co-first author on the new publication.

Earlier work by Dr. Elizabeth Repasky highlighting the impacts of stress on cancer treatment paved the way for this clinical study combining a beta-blocker with immunotherapy.

The work was guided by two co-senior authors: Elizabeth Repasky, PhD, who is the Dr. William Huebsch Professor in Immunology and Co-Leader of the Cell Stress and Biophysical Therapies Program at Roswell Park, and Marc Ernstoff, MD, who was Chair of Medicine at Roswell Park when this study was conducted and now is ImmunoOncology Branch Chief with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, Developmental Therapy Program.

Additional research is needed to confirm the team’s findings. A larger study of this approach is under way at Roswell Park and three other cancer centers.

This work was supported by grants from two National Institutes of Health agencies: the NCI and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (project numbers P30CA016056, R01CA205246, KL2TR001413 and UL1TR001412). Additional support was provided through The Melanoma Fund and generous donations to Roswell Park.


Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is a community united by the drive to eliminate cancer’s grip on humanity by unlocking its secrets through personalized approaches and unleashing the healing power of hope. Founded by Dr. Roswell Park in 1898, it is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Upstate New York. Learn more at, or contact us at 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355) or

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