There’s always room for improvement when it comes to the experience and outcomes of cancer treatment. Fortunately, scientists are constantly researching new, better ways to do so. Although standard treatment remains mostly the same for now, the medical community is making great strides in modifying and improving how people are treated for cancer.
You may have heard about recent trials involving gene therapy, or improved stem cell transplant procedures. In addition to improving procedures, researchers are also looking into better medications.
Melatonin: For more than sleep?
If you’ve ever struggled to fall asleep at night, you may have reached for a melatonin supplement. Now, scientists are investigating whether that jar of sleep-inducing pills sitting in your medicine cabinet may have uses far beyond just helping people get a good night’s rest. Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the pineal gland in the brain which controls your sleep cycle. Melatonin can be purchased as a supplement over the counter as a sleep-aid, and is favored by many people because, unlike prescription sleeping pills, it does not lead to dependency. When one takes a melatonin pill, the gland is activated and sleep is induced. But, researchers are now studying a new use for melatonin that goes way beyond helping people get their full eight hours.
A recent study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology looked at the efficacy of melatonin as a means to treat hematological neoplasms. Neoplasms are abnormal growths of tissue, and hematological refers to the study of blood. So, blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma fall into the category of hematological neoplasms that these researchers were studying.
It’s been known that melatonin can have a protective effect against the formation of hematological neoplasms, but not much information is available on the functions of melatonin in this role. These researchers were studying the mechanisms that gives melatonin this preventive power, and whether it can be used to prevent blood cancers from forming or progressing. Researchers also studied the utility of melatonin in the treatment of blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia.
The results of the study are promising for the future of better treating these blood cancers. One of the ideas that researchers investigated relates to the “melatonin hypothesis,” which suggests that decreased natural levels of melatonin in the body may predispose individuals to develop cancer. Thus, by taking melatonin supplements and regulating your circadian rhythm, you could theoretically lower the risk of these cancerous hematological neoplasms from developing. Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence, and melatonin is in no way a silver bullet. But, recognizing the association is an exciting first step in future discoveries of how to implement this knowledge to help people reduce their risk of developing lymphoma and leukemia.
Preventing tumor growth
In addition to preventive benefits, the researchers examined the role melatonin may play in treating blood cancers after they’ve already formed. They found multiple ways in which melatonin may contribute to this function. The first is regarding apoptosis, the “programmed cell death” of cells that naturally occurs as part of a cell’s life cycle. Tumors form when apoptosis fails to occur, thus the cells continue growing out of control. According to researchers, melatonin promotes apoptosis of leukemia cells, thus preventing, or at least slowing, cancer from forming. There’s also evidence that melatonin can induce apoptosis in lymphoma cells as well. Though a long shot, this means that melatonin could potentially be effectively used as a chemotherapy medication in leukemia and lymphoma patients. Given the harsh negative side effects of the currently available chemotherapy drugs, the implications for this is huge for the quality of life of patients undergoing treatment for blood cancers.
Similar to apoptosis, proliferation is a main characteristic of cancerous cells. When tumors proliferate, meaning that the cells within them divide and multiply without limitation, it severely damages the other cells surrounding the tumor. And, just like apoptosis, melatonin again can limit the proliferation of leukemia cells. This means that melatonin can help limit the growth of these cancerous tumors and the resulting damage on surrounding cells in the body.
Melatonin can also provide a boost to the naturally occurring functions of the immune system. These researchers found that melatonin “results in a quantitative and functional enhancement of natural killer (NK) cells.” Even more convincing, in a mouse study, mice administered daily melatonin had a 30-40% higher chance of surviving than the mice who were not treated with melatonin. In a clinical study in which the patients had incurable forms of blood cancers, melatonin administered in combination with chemotherapy experienced prolonged life spans. Researchers believe that this is because the melatonin improved the patients’ immune functions that otherwise would have been severely damaged by the chemotherapy drugs. The combination could be used effectively to prolong the lifespans of even patients with terminal diagnoses.
The benefits of combining melatonin with chemotherapy wasn’t only observed in the terminal population. The study’s authors also examined cases in which commonly used chemotherapy drugs doxorubicin and cytarabine were combined with melatonin. They found that the melatonin significantly helped with the many negative side effects known to result from the effective, but otherwise damaging, chemotherapy agents. The melatonin helped limit the fall in red blood cells and platelets following administration of the chemotherapy drugs. It also increased the amount of protein and globulins remaining in the blood. This suggests that melatonin can protect marrow and lymphoid tissues from the toxic effects of chemotherapy, and help stimulate marrow regeneration. These are two of the major issues seen with chemotherapy, and the resulting problems can be severe. There’s still many patients who need chemotherapy, and there has yet to be a replacement that works as well, so an effective way to prevent these side effects when patients need chemotherapy is a huge breakthrough.
It’s important to note that the authors of this study didn’t perform any of the mentioned trials. They simply pulled data from other smaller studies with the goal of compiling the evidence in one place, assisting in the design of future studies on the efficacy of melatonin for cancer treatment. Before any of these treatments are available to the public, they will need to undergo clinical trials. Clinical trials are rigorous studies with human subjects that are necessary to ensure that treatments are effective and pose no harm to the public before they are approved by the FDA to become available to the public. Cancer clinical trials are common, with hundreds going on at any given time. Though some people may be skeptical of participating in a clinical trial, there’s preliminary research that comes into play before a trial even reaches the design phase. As more discoveries such as these with melatonin are revealed, it’s likely even more clinical trials will be undertaken and, hopefully, more novel options for treating cancer.
There’s still a long way to go until melatonin may regularly be used as part of cancer treatment or prevention strategies. And, it’s important to remember that it still isn’t a silver bullet. Still, it’s exciting to see the progress researchers are making in identifying compounds like melatonin that are safe and could increase the efficacy and safety of other cancer drugs. Even if just one of the mentioned impacts of melatonin prove to be effective in future clinical trials, the implications for the future of cancer treatment are huge.