I am fascinated by my recent revelation that melatonin somehow has effects on cancer. It originally came to my attention during my research on “Sleep MD”; specifically during a passage in a review article on melatonin in the NEJM in 1997. The mechanisms by which melatonin exerts this effect are not known. The following mechanisms are proposed:
1) inducing apoptosis in tumors with the melatonin receptor
2) stimulating production of IL2 (antitumor response)
3) modulation of oncogene regulation (???you got me)
Melatonin is an antioxidant, apparently it is a more potent free radical scavenger than vitamin E or the other antioxidants usually bandied about on TV.
Most of the studies have been done by a group of Radiation Oncologists in Milan, Italy. In 1995, one small study was carried out with patients who had metastatic breast cancer and it appeared to slow their disease. In 1996, they published a study in the journal Oncology which showed increased survival in a small number of patients with glioblastoma who got melatonin.
In 1991, a study by a different group of malignant melanoma patients showed a transient reduction in tumor size. Considering the miserable prognosis for such patients, it’s worth noting.
The most recent study from this group in Milan fascinates me. I went to my local medical library and had them print me out a copy. It was published just a few months ago and involved 370 patients, all of whom had either advanced non-small cell lung cancer, or advanced gastrointestinal tumors (colon and stomach). They received standard chemotherapy with or without melatonin (doses of 20 mg per day, which is higher than the typical sleep doses).
Turns out, there was statistically significant differences in overall tumor regression AND 2 year survival. (At the end of two years, there was 25% survival in the melatonin group, vs. 13% for the non melatonin group, p<0.05).
I am not a fan of nutritional and holistic supplements. But these studies illustrate the exact reason why: we need well performed, repeated studies with real results. THAT could make many physicians and science-minded people converts! So based on this data, I believe I would recommend melatonin to some cancer patients. It’s not a cure, but there is no cure for metastatic disease, is there?
And let the message go out to other supplements: if you want to be taken seriously, get your pathetic butts in the lab! Maybe someday, we can drive these herbalists/naturopaths out of business! (I can dream, can’t I?)