'Sunshine vitamin' pills may extend lives of cancer patients

A vitamin pill available for a few pence in any local chemist's shop may have a bigger impact in extending the survival of cancer patients than drugs costing tens of thousands of pounds, says a leading cancer specialist. Professor Angus Dalgeish, consultant medical oncologist at St George's Hospital, Tooting, south-west London, will tell a conference next week that he tests all his cancer patients for the level of Vitamin D and prescribes supplements where they are low.

At St George's, where he runs a clinic for patients with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, tests showed that the majority had low Vitamin D.

"If we supplement people who are low they may do better than expected. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Vitamin D turns out to be more useful in improving outcomes in cases of early relapse than drugs costing £10,000 a year," said Professor Dalgleish. "I spent a decade studying interferon for which the NHS paid £10,000 annually per patient for years for very little benefit. Vitamin D is much more likely to give a benefit in my view."

Professor Dalgleish said he also tests Vitamin D levels in his private patients who have different kinds of cancer and prescribes the vitamin to any where it is low. An audit of vitamin D levels in patients being treatment at the private London Oncology Clinic has started.

He will speak at the conference, at BMA House in London next Wednesday, alongside other specialists who will present evidence for the role of the vitamin in reducing cancer.

Joan Lappe, professor of medicine at Creighton University in Nebraska, US, will describe a trial showing how Vitamin D and calcium supplements given to cancer patients dramatically improved survival. The trial was originally designed to assess the effects of the supplements on osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease, and only later switched to examine their effects on cancer. Other papers will present results of the effect of vitamin D on bowel cancer and adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the skin and other tissues.

Professor Dalgeish said he had been intrigued by research on patients with melanoma by the University of Leeds which showed that those with the lowest level of Vitamin D in their blood had the poorest outlook. They were 30 per cent more likely to suffer a recurrence of the disease after treatment than those who had the highest levels. "It was the most staggering thing. When we had a validated test and looked at our patients [at St George's] the majority were low. I am trying to get my colleagues to look at all their cancer patients."

Melanoma is commonest in people with pale skin who spend little time in the sun throughout the year, until they go on holiday and get severely sunburnt. Adults who suffered severe sunburn before the age of 15 are at greatest risk.

Professor Dalgleish said: "We have always known that melanoma was caused by sunburn plus fair skin and moles plus an unknown Factor X. The speculation now is whether Vitamin D has something to do with Factor X. Why I am excited as a clinician is that with Vitamin D we can move low levels to high levels, with supplements."

Vitamin D is the only vitamin that humans make themselves, from the action of the sun on the skin, and is essential for the health of skin and bones.

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