Oct. 18, 2002 -- Skin cancer is the most common malignancy. New research shows that a prescription cream -- derived from vitamin A -- commonly used to treat acne and psoriasis may help prevent skin cancer in some people predisposed to the disease.
Pills consisting of vitamin A derivatives -- such as the acne drug Accutane -- have been shown to shrink tumors. But at the necessary doses for skin cancer, their side effects are often too much to bear, says lead investigator Ervin Epstein Jr., MD, clinical professor and research dermatologist at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. But newer retinoid creams, such as Tazorac, may provide a safer alternative for cancer prevention in those at risk.
In mice exposed to UV radiation three times a week over an 11-month study, the number and size of skin cancers was 85% smaller in mice treated with Tazaroccompared with those not treated with the vitamin A derivative.
In order to help measure the full impact of what the cream is capable of, the researchers used mice were that served as a model for people with basal cell nevus syndrome (BCNS), also known as Gorlin's syndrome. People with this rare condition have a much higher risk of basal cell carcinoma, the most common -- although usually not fatal -- form of skin cancer typically caused by excessive sun exposure.
Epstein presented his findings this week at the American Association for Cancer Research's annual meeting on prevention research.
Tazorac is often used to heal severe facial acne, partly by keeping skin pores clear. It also works in treating psoriasis by reducing skin redness and the number and size of lesions. The medication may cause minor side effects such as skin irritation and peeling, but doesn't result in the serious side effects of oral retinoids, which include liver problems and elevated blood fat and cholesterol levels.
News of Epstein's study was met with great optimism by experts, some of whom expressed hope that the finding could benefit others at high risk of developing skin tumors, such as organ transplant patients and people who have had skin cancer before.
"This is a great discovery because we often use oral retinoids to prevent skin cancers in high-risk patients, but they do have serious side effects," James Spencer, MD, vice chairman of the dermatology department at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "I normally wouldn't recommend Accutane to these high-risk patients because of its serious side effects. But I could put them on a cream because it's safe. Tazaroc may cause an increased risk of sunburn, but it's not as though you can't walk through a parking lot."
American Academy of Dermatology spokesman Darrell Rigel, MD agrees. "This is the first time that something has been shown to work topically on basal cell carcinomas," he tells WebMD. "If these results can be extrapolated to humans, it could be a significant breakthrough."