Vitamin A is touted for promoting good eyesight, a properly functioning immune system and, now, suppressing colorectal cancer.

A new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine shows a connection between retinoic acid, a compound derived in the body from vitamin A, and the suppression of colorectal cancer in mice and humans.

"The intestine is constantly bombarded by foreign organisms," said Edgar Engleman, MD, professor of pathology and of medicine. "As a result, its immune system is very complex. There's a clear link in humans between inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis, and the eventual development of colorectal cancer. Retinoic acid has been known for years to be involved in suppressing inflammation in the intestine. We wanted to connect the dots and learn whether and how retinoic acid levels directly affect cancer development."

Retinoic acid is essential for many processes of growth and development and has been the subject of many recent scientific studies. Researchers have been aware of its complicated relationship with immune-related inflammation and gut microorganisms — but is difficult to study because it degrades quickly when exposed to light. This makes it challenging to accurately detect levels of the metabolite in the body.

The new study could even help suggest new ways to prevent or treat colorectal cancer in humans.

"It's become very clear through many studies that chronic, smoldering inflammation is a very important risk factor for many types of cancer," said Engleman. "Now that we've shown a role for retinoic acid deficiency in colorectal cancer, we'd like to identify the specific microorganisms that initiate these changes in humans. Ultimately we hope to determine whether our findings could be useful for the prevention or treatment of colorectal cancer."

Source: Engleman E, Prestwood T, DeMaio M, Reticker-Flynn N, Kenkel J, Carmi Y, et al. Retinoic acid suppresses colorectal cancer development, Stanford study finds. Immunity. 2016.

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