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updated: 4/4/2011 7:50 AM

Supplement may help to ease liver damage

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S-adenosyl methionine is a sulfur containing molecule that everyone makes. It is crucial for human metabolism and as a dietary supplement may be beneficial in a variety of common medical conditions. Recently, three separate studies have shown that it may be beneficial in the treatment of cancer -- related inflammatory liver damage.

One of the side effects of chemotherapy is damage to the liver. The success of chemotherapy is greatly dependent upon the amount of chemotherapy that can be administered over time. Patients who are able to handle a full course of chemotherapy have a greater chance of success. Chemotherapy-induced liver damage can limit the amount of chemotherapy that can be delivered, decreasing the possibility of clinical success. In traditional medicine, the number of medications to prevent liver damage are quite limited and not commonly used during chemotherapy.

Because of its role in many critical biochemical pathways, SAME has been proposed and is used for a wide range of medical conditions including depression, fibromyalgia, joint pain, chronic fatigue syndrome and inflammatory liver disease. There is reasonable data to indicate that SAME is useful for depression, joint pain, fibromyalgia and inflammatory liver disease. Recently, several clinical studies demonstrated that taking SAME during chemotherapy reduced the incidence of liver damage and ultimately enabled patients to complete a full course of chemotherapy.

This year in an Italian study, 105 colon cancer patients, after surgery, underwent chemotherapy. Sixty patients were given SAME during chemotherapy and 45 patients were given chemotherapy alone. Those patients were taking SAME had significantly reduced levels of liver enzymes when compared to those taking chemotherapy alone. The SAME group had less interruption of their chemotherapy schedule.

In another Italian study, SAME was shown to limit liver toxicity to another colon cancer chemotherapeutic regimen. In this study, 42 patients were treated with chemotherapy alone and 32 patients had chemotherapy and SAME. Liver enzymes were recorded before the treatment and after every therapy cycle. In those patients who were taking SAME, all liver enzymes were significantly lower during the chemotherapy than those patients who were not taking SAME.

Supporting the idea that SAME may limit liver damage, SAME was shown to reduce liver inflammation and the risk of developing liver cancer in those patients with chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C infection significantly increases the risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma.

The effectiveness of chemotherapy is often limited by the amount of chemotherapy a person can take before experiencing serious side effects. One of the more serious side effects of chemotherapy is liver damage.

Although most chemotherapy-related liver damage is reversible over time, not getting the right amount of chemotherapy or the optimal chemotherapeutic agent can greatly reduce the possibility of a good outcome.

Taking SAME seems reasonable. When taken correctly, SAME is very safe and significant toxicity has not been reported in clinical studies with more than 22,000 patients. As always, check with your doctor first.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.