May 20, 2015

Fighting Skin Cancer with Vitamin B3

by Bonnie Denmark

May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time to announce the results of a promising new study by Australian researchers: An inexpensive vitamin pill reduced new occurrences of the most common types of skin cancer by nearly a quarter in a large-scale clinical trial. Detailed findings will be presented in a May 30 session of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago.

Participating in the year-long study were 386 people who had been diagnosed with basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma. The volunteers took 2 pills every day of either 500 mg of nicotinamide, which is a form of vitamin B3, or a placebo. Nicotinamide is similar to niacin, but without unpleasant side effects such as flushing, headaches, and low blood pressure. At the end of the study, the nicotinamide group had a 23% lower instance of new cancer occurrences than the placebo group (basal cell carcinoma was down 20%, while squamous cell carcinoma decreased 30%). The vitamin pills also reduced actinic keratoses by 13%; these rough, scaly patches of skin are strong indicators of cancer risk (ASCO).

More than 3 million skin cancer cases are diagnosed every year in the US alone, and 9 out of 10 cases of nonmelanoma cancer are associated with ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun (Skin Cancer Foundation). UV light has a shorter wavelength with more energy than visible light. The shorter the wavelength, the more punch the radiation particles pack, and the more damage they can do to organisms.

The electromagnetic spectrum: Note the relative wavelengths of visible and ultraviolet light. (Credit: NASA)

Earth’s protective ozone layer prevents much of the sun’s radiation from reaching us. Unfortunately, common household chemicals released into the atmosphere were eating away at the ozone layer for several decades before scientists discovered the problem in 1974. This led to an international ban on ozone-destroying chemicals, but not before they wreaked serious havoc on the planet. It can take decades for skin cancer to develop, and sure enough, nonmelanoma skin cancers increased by nearly 77% between 1992 and 2006, with up to 200% more cases of squamous cell carcinoma over the past 30 years in the US (Skin Cancer Foundation). The good news is that the ozone layer has been repairing itself since the international treaty took effect, sparing us from millions of new cases of skin cancer.

Earth’s ozone layer serves as a shield from much damaging ultraviolet light. (Credit: NASA)

The researchers in the nicotinamide study believe that the vitamin pills combat two effects of UV radiation that are known to contribute to skin cancer: UV waves interfere with the molecular structure of DNA, and they weaken the immune system. Lead researcher Diona Damian cautions that the B3 treatment is recommended only for those with recurring skin cancers, and must be combined with sun safety and regular checkups with a dermatologist (Cancer.net). Six months after study participants stopped taking the pills, both groups showed a similar rate of new cancer spots, so the effects wear off quickly. The vitamin works against cancer only while being taken, without residual benefits.

Ultraviolet (UV) photons harm the DNA molecules of living organisms. (Credit: David Herring/NASA)

Skin cancer is primarily a lifestyle disease, so the best way to avoid it is to take preventive measures. The CDC and the Skin Cancer Foundation offer these tips:

  • Seek shade, especially during midday hours.
  • Do not get sunburned.
  • Cover up with protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and wrap-around sunglasses.
  • Use broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming, perspiring profusely, or toweling off.
  • Do not use indoor tanning booths.
  • Examine your skin monthly for changes, and see a dermatologist every year for a professional exam.

 

LEARN MORE

What are the risk factors for skin cancer? Find out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Read our module about the world-changing research of Nobel Prize Recipient Mario Molina and co-recipient F. Sherwood Roland on the ozone layer that shields us from the sun’s radiation.

 

Written by

Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.

The views expressed above do not necessarily represent those of Visionlearning or our funding agencies.

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