Vitamin A drug battles leukemia

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Scientific discoveries and ongoing research

. . . Doctors may soon be using a drug derived from a form of vitamin A to battle some kinds of leukemia. All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) is being tested in several American hospitals, as well as in Europe and Australia, as a treatment for a type of adult leukemia called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). In one recent report on the drug, doctors in Australia gave ATRA to 11 people whose prognosis was poor. (APL is more responsive to chemotherapy than some other forms of the disease, but it is usually fatal if the patient relapses.) Seven patients had complete remissions that had lasted as long as nine months when the paper was published.

The Australian findings confirm results of ATRA treatment studies in this country, says Lawrence Piro, M.D., director of the cancer center at the Scripps Clinic in California. High rates of complete remission have been reported in all trials conducted so far. He expects submission for FDA review of the drug in the near future.

David S. Yohn, Ph.D., director of operations at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, where the drug has also been tested, points out that ATRA is a drug, not a nutrient. High doses of vitamin A would not be expected to have the same lifesaving effects, even though the drug causes side effects similar to those of vitamin A overdose: headache, very dry skin, hair loss and severe bone pain (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Medicine, October 1992).

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By Martha Capwell and Teresa A. Yeykal