Pancreatic Cancer Chemotherapy Gets Boost from Vitamin A

Results from a new study suggest that combining high doses of vitamin A with chemotherapy could make treating pancreatic cancer more successful. [NIH]
Results from a new study suggest that combining high doses of vitamin A with chemotherapy could make treating pancreatic cancer more successful. [NIH]
During World War II the British government began a disinformation campaign that the Royal Air Force  pilots were fed high-carrot diets, giving them superior night vision and the ability to spot the enemy in the dark. In reality, the Allies were doing their best to keep their brand new RADAR technology under wraps. It’s unclear how well the ruse worked on the German forces, but the myth has been propagated over the years to the point where scientists even tried to lend the tale some credence by suggesting that the high vitamin A levels in carrots were giving the pilots their super vision. This part of the myth is actually rooted in real science, as evidenced by the fact that nyctalopia—or night blindness—can develop through vitamin A deficiency.

Now, scientists at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have found another, more meaningful use of vitamin A that does not revolve around the acquisition of superhuman abilities, yet could potentially save thousands of lives each year. The researchers found that combining a chemical form of vitamin A along with chemotherapeutic compounds increased the successful treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic tumors are typically comprised of aggressive cancer cells that often tend to be intractable to treatment with chemo- and radiotherapy alone. Moreover, while surgery to remove the tumor offers the best chance of survival, most patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread to other organs. A different approach is therefore needed to target the cancer more effectively.

“Pancreatic cancer is extremely hard to treat by chemotherapy, so this finding is important because vitamin A targets the noncancerous tissue and makes the existing chemotherapy more effective, killing the cancer cells and shrinking tumors,” explained senior study author Professor Hemant Kocher, M.D., professor of liver and pancreas surgery at QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute. “This could potentially be applicable to other cancers, because if we try to understand the cancer as a whole, including its surrounding tissue, we may be able to develop new and better treatments.”

Cancer cells are typically surrounded by other tissue comprised of stromal cells, which can make up 80% of the pancreatic cancer mass. These relatively normal tissue cells communicate with the cancer cells and play a significant role in the progression of the disease—offering a possible new target for treatment.

In this new study, in vitro cultures and mice were tested using a new approach of targeting stromal cells and cancer cells simultaneously. By using gemcitabine chemotherapy to target cancer cells, and a form of vitamin A to target the surrounding stromal cells, the combined approach led to a reduction in cancer cell proliferation and invasion.

“This is the first time that we have combined vitamin A with chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Kocher noted. “The results are so promising that we’re now taking this into a clinical trial.”

The findings from this study were published recently in the Journal of Pathology in an article entitled “Anti-Stromal Treatment Together with Chemotherapy Targets Multiple Signalling Pathways in Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma.”

Targeting stromal cells as well as the cancer cells blocks multiple cell signaling pathways that are used by cancer cells to become aggressive. This means that the cancer cells are no longer able to communicate as effectively, and the tumor does not grow as it otherwise would.

The new approach is now being tested in a clinical trial led from Barts Cancer Institute’s Centre for Experimental Cancer Medicine. The trial hopes to establish a safe combination of two chemotherapy medications with a stromal targeting agent and is currently recruiting participants.

“The majority of experimental work was done as part of my Ph.D. project, and I am excited that our hard work in the laboratory is now being tested in the form of a clinical trial,” remarked lead study author Elisabete Carapuça, a graduate student at QMUL. “We hope that it will benefit patients facing this awful disease.”

The QUML team now looks forward to the results from the newly initiated clinical trial. However, they urge caution to patients that consumption of vitamin A supplements is not recommended at this stage, because the results are not proven in human clinical trials.