TIM PALMER: A simple oral dose of an active form of Vitamin B3 may be the secret to stopping people with significant sun damage from developing some forms of skin cancer.
New research from the University of Sydney has found that a high dose of vitamin B-derivative, nicotinamide, can prevent up to a quarter of non-melanoma skin cancers.
Lucy Carter reports.
LUCY CARTER: Nicotinamide is an active form of vitamin B that’s commonly found in meat, fish, nuts, and mushrooms, as well as some vegetables.
Scientists and dermatologists have long suspected that it plays a significant role in helping prevent some types of skin cancer.
Now a University of Sydney study funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia has gone a long way towards proving that.
Dr Andrew Martin is part of the team of researchers.
ANDREW MARTIN: This was a study designed to evaluate the potential of a form of vitamin B3 called nicotinamide.
LUCY CARTER: Researchers enlisted a group of more than 380 volunteers who had all had two or more non-melanoma skin cancers over the past five years.
Dr Martin says that half were given a high oral dose of nicotinamide, while the other half were fed a placebo.
ANDREW MARTIN: They remained on treatment for 12 months and had regular dermatological checks over that time period and at the end we found that the people that had been allocated to nicotinamide made about a quarter fewer skin cancers than those that had been allocated placebo.
LUCY CARTER: Dr Michael Freeman is a practicing dermatologist at the Gold Coast University Hospital.
He’s one of many medical professionals who have been using nicotinamide with their patients for years.
MICHAEL FREEMAN: When the first trials came out showing us that nicotinamide prevented the immunosuppression caused by the sun I’ve been giving all of my patients who have sun damage nicotinamide, and provided that they’re not allergic to it, they’ve found in general a good 30 per cent improvement in their skin damage so that they have to have 30 per cent less treatments given to them over time.
LUCY CARTER: Dr Freeman says this study is definitive proof that nicotinamide can help with skin cancer.
MICHAEL FREEMAN: It is extraordinary that something simple that has been out there for, well, 30 years dermatologists have been using it for various skin conditions, but this is the first time that we’ve actually understood how well it works for sun damage.
I should add that nicotinamide, although it is a B3 vitamin, is the active form of B3. So taking the inactive form of the B3 will not give you the same effect. In fact it will give you terrible side effects of flushing usually.
LUCY CARTER: The University of Sydney’s Dr Andrew Martin was also keen to stress that simply taking high doses of vitamin B would be ineffective or even dangerous.
ANDREW MARTIN: There are different types of vitamin B. Nicotinamide is the amide form of the vitamin, and that’s an important point to make. There are other forms like niacin or nicotinic acid that have actually got known side effects associated with them.
So our study specifically tested nicotinamide and in doses that far exceed what would normally be taken in as part of a standard diet.
We’re really talking about specific high-dose formulations of nicotinamide and also we’re talking about the use of that in people at high risk.
So we’re talking about people that have had non-melanoma skin cancers in the past and even for those people to be talking with their dermatologists about their potential appropriateness or eligibility for taking these high doses of nicotinamide to help reduce the number of skin cancers that they may develop in the future.
LUCY CARTER: Both doctors say that by far the best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect skin from sun damage in the first place.
The study has been published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
TIM PALMER: Lucy Carter reporting.