A small study hints that a form of vitamin A may help prevent lung cancer in former smokers. In a study presented at the 38th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology on May 21, 2002 in Orlando, Florida, researchers reported that a chemical cousin of vitamin A may reverse some pre-cancerous changes in the lungs of former smokers.

While quitting the smoking habit significantly reduces lung cancer risk, former smokers remain at higher than normal risk for years afterward. In fact, despite kicking the habit, ex-smokers still account for half of newly diagnosed lung cancer cases in the United Slates.

For the study, 266 long-time smokers who had kicked the habit at least one year previously were randomly assigned to receive two forms of retinoic acid—commonly known as vitamin A—or a placebo. Retinoic acid activates some genes that are associated with fighting cancer, according to the study.

Three months later, fewer pre-cancerous changes were observed in the lungs of patients given one form of vitamin A, compared to either of the other two groups.

“Much needs to be done before we can recommend this for prevention,” says study author Jonathan Kurie, MD, MHS, PhD, ASCO, associate professor of Thoracic, Head and Neck Medical Oncology at the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, “But the results are promising, worthy of further study.”

Tobacco smoking is blamed for 85 to 90 percent of all US lung cancer cases.

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