Retinoic Acid, or Accutane, and cancer

Retinoic Acid, or Accutane, and cancer

Isotretinoin, 13-cis-retinoic acid, or Isotretinoin, or Accutane (it's former brand name), was developed to treat acne. It was sometimes used to treat cancer but is increasingly being repurposed and studied to treat other cancers, such as neuroblastoma in children. 

Retinoic acid used with cancer is another example of an 'off-label drug. It was used by Professor Ben Williams as part of a package of 'repurposed drugs' he used to beat his GBM in 1998. (See here). Some 'health' practitioners use it along with resveratrol to turn cancer stem cells into normal cancer cells.

It's worth saying that this drug has a lot of side-effects - see here. It has been withdrawn by the manufacturer (Roche) because of these and that it seemed to cause IBS. 


Vitamin A is a retinoid. And all-trans retinoic acid and a great number of signalling molecules In a normal heathy individual these cause the differentiation of stem cells into normal cells. And so, the logic runs, that retinoids could equally cause cancer stem cells - the cells at the heart of all cancers; the cells no orthodox cancer drugs are capable of killing - to be turned into 'normal' cancer cells that drugs can kill, or even into normal healthy cells!

Go to: Vitamin A and cancer

Early carcinogenesis compromises levels of retinoids, which implies that retinoids might ordinarily block tumour formation. Certainly retinoids do react with cancer-forming pathways, such as oestrogen signalling in breast cancer and it is known that vitamin A has anti-cancer effects. However cells metabolise retinoids rapidly and epigenetic changes help tumours become retinoid resistant.

As a result, using retinoids as an anti-cancer cancer treatment requires other drugs and natural compounds in a total combination that can also block methylation and histone increases.

Retinoic acid and Neuroblastoma

Children with high risk neuroblastoma, are given 13 cis-retinoic acid or isotretinoin for 6 months after being treated with chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant. It is known to reduce the risk of recurrence. The drug is pulsed, two weeks on, two weeks off.

Accutane may cause cancer

There are also reports that after several years of use it can even cause cancer - colorectal and some types of leukemia.

Go to: Repurposed off-label drugs for cancer

Retinoids - the future

Scientists are currently trying to develop more concentrated and effective retinoids, with less side-effects. We won't hold our breath.

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1. Annual Review of Pathology 2011:

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