New research has suggested that a certain kind of common heart drug could increase survival in women with ovarian cancer by up to four years.

The study analysed data from 1,425 women with the tough-to-treat cancer and found that median survival in patients taking beta blockers was 47.8 months – five months longer than the 42 months median for those not using the treatment.

But there were more dramatic differences between the types of beta blocker being taken. Among the women being treated with the drugs, those taking non-selective beta blockers had more than double the survival time of those taking selective beta blockers – 94.9 months versus 38 months.

These results add to the growing body of evidence that stress hormones can stimulate tumours to grow. Beta blockers, which are usually used to treat hypertension and other heart conditions, inhibit stress hormone production. The selective versions target specific hormones whereas the non-selective versions target all kinds.

"Some of the prior studies have had conflicting data regarding the use of beta blockers and cancer patient outcomes,” says Dr Anil Sood, the study’s leader. “This may, in part, be since the type of beta blocker medication was not considered.

“To our knowledge, the current study is the first to examine the relationships with patient outcomes based on specific types of beta blockers."

However, the researchers have cautioned that there are significant side effects to using beta blockers that could prevent their widespread use in cancer. Stress reduction programmes may represent a safer alternative.