While folic acid is
more commonly known as the nutrient that can
help prevent birth defects, new research suggests
that folic acid supplements may also help prevent
cancer of the larynx.
In a study of people with precancerous lesions
called leukoplakia, Italian researchers found
the lesions disappeared in 28 percent of participants,
and 44 percent experienced at least a partial
shrinking of their lesions. All of the study
participants took 5 milligrams of folic acid
three times a day for six months.
While that would seem to be encouraging news,
Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman of hematology/oncology
at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge, La.,
said the finding may not lead to significant
"It's an early study. It appears to benefit
a very small number of people, and in some people
with leukoplakia, it naturally goes away anyway.
I really can't tell you if it's good for you
or bad for you," Brooks said.
The study authors said the new research is
just an initial look at folic acid's possible
"The present work was aimed at a preliminary
evaluation of folic acid as a novel chemopreventive
agent. Definitive conclusions are far from being
drawn because reliable data about spontaneous
regression of leukoplakia are lacking,"
wrote the authors, from Universita Cattolica
del Sacro Cuore, in Rome.
Results of the study appear in the July 15
issue of the journal Cancer.
Each year, nearly 40,000 Americans are diagnosed
with head and neck cancers, including cancer
of the larynx, according to the U.S.
National Cancer Institute. These types
of cancer are most common in people older than
50, and tobacco use is the number-one risk factor
for these malignancies, according to the NCI.
Unlike most other cancers, laryngeal cancer
hasn't seen any improvement in five-year survival
rates during the past 30 years, according to
background information in the study.
For the study, the researchers recruited 43
people who had been diagnosed with laryngeal
leukoplakia. Most -- 88 percent -- were smokers,
and all but three were men.
Because prior studies had shown that people
with head and neck cancers and laryngeal leukoplakia
often have low blood levels of folate, the natural
form of folic acid, the researchers wanted to
learn if folic acid could help prevent the progression
of leukoplakia to cancer.
So, each study participant was asked to take
5 milligrams of folic acid three times a day
for six months.
Blood tests were done periodically to ensure
the volunteers were taking their supplements
as requested. The researchers also measured
the leukoplakias once a month.
Twelve people -- 28 percent -- showed no response
to the folic acid regimen. Nineteen people --
44 percent -- experienced a partial shrinkage
of their leukoplakia, and 12 people -- 28 percent
-- had a "complete response," meaning
their leukoplakia disappeared.
"Such results open intriguing perspectives,
considering also the fact that hypofolatemia
[low folate levels] has been reported in 2001
to be the most frequent vitamin deficiency in
the U.S. population," wrote the authors,
who are planning on conducting a larger, randomized,
placebo-controlled trial to better assess folic
In the meantime, Ochsner's Brooks said he wouldn't
recommend folic acid supplements. "Few
people are folic-acid deficient now that it's
being added to breads and cereals. I think this
study, once again, teaches us that we need to
do large, randomized studies to see if things
really work before we start taking them."
Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist
at New York University Medical Center, said,
"It's a very small study, and even the
authors say that conclusions can't be drawn
from this study."
"But, the bottom line is that folate is
a very important B vitamin, and low levels may
be involved in certain carcinogenic processes,"
she added. "I would like to see people
getting folate from vegetables, fruits and legumes,
rather than from a folic acid supplement. These
foods have other cancer-fighting properties
and can help protect against other chronic diseases."
Heller recommended daily consumption of 400
micrograms of folate or folic acid, preferably
folate from food sources.