Every once in a while, a piece of medical research crosses my desk that I feel has the potential to change how medicine is practiced.
Today is one of those days.
A recent medical article revealed that patients with end stage pancreatic cancer and treated with an antioxidant and narcotic-like medication lived longer than expected.
The pancreas is located in the abdomen, behind the stomach. It has multiple functions, including secreting enzymes that help digestion and regulating blood sugar levels by releasing insulin. Unfortunately, cancer can also begin in the pancreas. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 42,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed in 2009. Unfortunately, early stage pancreatic cancer rarely has symptoms and most cases are diagnosed at a late stage. As a result, the five-year survival rate is only 5 to 6 percent.
According to an article in the medical journal Integrative Cancer Therapies, a group of physicians in New Mexico used a powerful antioxidant (alpha-lipoic acid) and a medication used primarily for alcohol and drug dependence (naltrexone). Three patients with end-stage pancreatic cancer were treated intravenously and orally with alpha-lipoic acid and took naltrexone at night.
The patients improved significantly over the course of therapy. All had radiologic proof of the tumors getting smaller. All lived longer than expected.
Since most pancreatic cancers are found in a late stage, traditional medical approaches like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are less effective.
What is remarkable about the alpha-lipoic acid and naltrexone protocol is that it worked on patients with end-stage cancer. One patient is still alive 61/2 years after he was told that his "-prognosis was hopeless."
In cancer cells, both alpha-lipoic acid and naltrexone suppress a specific cancer cell protein, NF KB. It is one of the proteins that allows cancer cells to grow rapidly.
In the test tube, suppression of NF KB results in cancer cell death. From the clinical results above, it is possible that the combination of alpha-lipoic acid and naltrexone results in cancer cell death.
Of note, suppressing production of NF KB is also a hot area of cancer drug research. A new anti-cancer drug, bortezomib, is showing promise.
Are these clinical results a breakthrough in cancer treatment? It may too early to tell and I must stress that there is a big difference between a positive result with a few patients and a real clinical trial. However, medical breakthroughs often start with a positive result in a few patients.
Overall, there do not seem to be significant side effects and few contraindications for the alpha-lipoic acid and naltrexone therapy.
It is worthy of more research.
•Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.