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Vitamin A May Be Key to Fighting Pancreatic Cancer


Pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest types of cancer, may have an enemy: vitamin A. Researchers from Barts Cancer Institute have found that vitamin A can inhibit the growth of pancreatic cancer cells by changing the structure of the non-cancerous cells surrounding the malignant ones.

Pancreatic cancer patients are deficient in vitamin A

An estimated 43,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010, according to the National Cancer Institute, and around the world the disease affects more than 270,000 people per year. Prognosis is poor: the five-year survival rates are close to 25 percent if the cancer is surgically removed while it is still small and has not spread to the lymph nodes.

However, most cases are identified too late, and one reason is there are no reliable screening tests for early detection of the disease. In addition, by the time the cancer is large enough to cause symptoms (e.g., weight loss, jaundice, abdominal pain, fat in the stool), the disease has already spread outside the pancreas and is very difficult to treat.

Therefore, any potentially new, effective way to fight pancreatic cancer is of high interest. The new finding is the result of a four-year collaborative effort between Barts, the University of Cambridge, and the Hubrecht Institute in Holland.

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The international research team, led by Dr. Hemant Kocher, a consultant pancreatic and liver cancer surgeon at Barts and The London NHS Trust, based their efforts on an approach Kocher called the seed and soil theory, a way to target cancer that was originally proposed more than 100 years ago.

According to Kocher, “We found that paying attention to the non-cancerous tissue surrounding the seed of the cancer is as important as focusing on the cancer itself.” Thus if the non-cancerous cells around the pancreatic cancer cells are treated, these cells will change from being a welcoming environment for invading cancer cells into an environment that hinders growth.

With that thought in mind, the researchers treated non-cancerous cells that surrounded pancreatic cancer cells taken from cancer patients. They discovered that when they raised vitamin A levels in the surrounding cells, the treated cells hindered cancer growth.

People with pancreatic cancer typically have vitamin deficiencies, including a deficiency of vitamin A, because the secretion of digestive fluids from the pancreas and liver is blocked. Although this study showed that administering vitamin A to healthy cells may help block cancer growth, Kocher noted that “Vitamin A is just one example of an agent that can be added to successfully alter the nature of the soil.”

In other words, Kocher pointed out that “other vitamins and medicine could further change the soil’s structure so this is really opening up a whole new field of research and possibilities.” Thus fighting pancreatic cancer with vitamin A may be only the beginning of a new way to battle this deadly disease.

Barts Cancer Institute
National Cancer Institute