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Vitamin A shows promise in 'Seed and Soil' theory for pancreatic cancer

11 July 2011

Vitamin A could hold a key to beating pancreatic cancer, according to an international research team, led by researchers at the Barts Cancer Institute (BCI), London.

Vitamin A could hold a key to beating pancreatic cancer, according to an international research team, led by researchers at the Barts Cancer Institute (BCI), London.

The team has found that by raising levels of Vitamin A in non-cancerous cells surrounding malignant ones, they were able to change the cells’ structure to inhibit, rather than facilitate, cancer growth.

Mr Hemant Kocher, a consultant pancreatic and liver cancer surgeon, led the team during a four year joint project with the University of Cambridge and the Hubrecht Institute in Holland. These findings have now been published in the prestigious journal  Gastroenterology.

Only 3 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than 5 years and new methods for treating this cancer are urgently needed.

This research adds more evidence for the concept of the ‘seed and soil’ theory for targeting cancer, initially proposed in 1889, by Stephen Paget, a surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Dr Paget studied why breast cancer prefers to spread into certain organs, like the liver and the bone, rather than other areas of the body. He believed those organs provided a more fertile environment in which the cancer could seed itself.

This ‘seed and soil’ theory has been taken a major step forward in the recently published work from Hemant Kocher's group.  Now they are proposing that paying attention to the ‘soil’ in the immediate vicinity of the cancerous cells (i.e. the surrounding non-cancerous tissues) may be as important as targeting the cancer itself.

Pancreatic cancer patients are deficient in many vitamins due to a blockage in the secretion of digestive juices from the pancreas and liver. One such vitamin is Vitamin A, commonly found in vegetables such as carrots.

Mr Kocher and his team demonstrated that restoring normal amounts of Vitamin A in stellate cells – the vitamin-storing cells of the pancreas,  turns these stellate cells from cancer-facilitating cells to cancer-inhibiting cells. 

Vitamin A treatment did not effect the cancer cells directly, thus changing the surrounding tissue of pancreatic cancer changed the manner in which the cancer behaved.

"These exciting research findings are proof of principle that novel promising routes can be used to devise new treatments for deadly diseases such as pancreatic cancer,” said Mr Kocher.  This concept  will need to be proved in clinical trials.

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