Biomedical researchers have often unveiled the power of many natural substances in furthering the fight against human diseases. Recent research by scientists from Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and Texas A&M University System, US, has shown that vanadium, a natural element that is also found in many foods, can be a potential weapon in combating breast cancer. The study will be published in the January 2007 issue of the International Journal of Cancer.
“Vanadium is found in grains and grain products, spinach, fruits, vegetable oils, black pepper, mushrooms, shellfish, etc,” says Dr Bikram Saha, former assistant professor of medicine at R.G. Kar Medical College Hospital, Calcutta. “However, only about five per cent of the total vanadium ingested through food is absorbed by the human body,” he adds.
In the study, Malay Chatterjee, professor of pharmaceutical technology at Jadavpur University, and Ajay Rana, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M University System, along with their colleagues evaluated how vanadium can fight breast cancer. The researchers assessed the effect of vanadium on human breast cancer cells and also on cancer-affected animal (rats) breast tissue.
In rats, the researchers first induced breast cancer-like changes by administering certain cancer-causing chemicals. Then the researchers administered ammonium monovanadate (a compound of vanadium) in those rats at a certain concentration for 24 weeks. Prof. Chatterjee and his associates found that administration of the compound significantly reduced the incidence and size of breast tumours. They also found that the introduction of vanadium resulted in a 34 per cent reduction in the multiplicity of breast tumours.
The researchers then took samples of human breast cancer cells and administered ammonium monovanadate at certain concentrations for 36 hours. They found that vanadium worked against these cancerous cells as well by inducing apoptosis (programmed death of cells). “Vanadium has the potential to be developed into an anti-breast cancer drug in the near future,” Prof. Chatterjee says. “The reasonable dose of vanadium for prevention of cancer in human beings has been worked out to be 195 micro-grams per day,” he adds.
Prof. Chatterjee explains that vanadium leads to the programmed death of cancer cells by arresting cell cycles (the complete series of events from one cell division to the next) and also condenses the chromosomes in these cells. “We confirmed the anti-cancer properties of vanadium by observing the protein expressions of some important biomarkers (scientifically called p53, Bcl2, Bax, BrdU) that regulate cells to undergo abnormal proliferation in cancer,” Prof. Chatterjee says.
Dr Saha says that the study by Indian and US researchers is impressive because it may help develop a potential new drug for breast cancer treatment. “In a country such as India, where breast cancer is common, the study has significant implications,” he says.
An article published in the Journal of Toxicology-Clinical Toxicology by a US toxicology expert D.G. Barceloux says, “Although most foods contain low concentrations of vanadium (less than 1 nanogram per gram), food is the major source of exposure to vanadium for the general population.” It adds, “Vanadium is probably an essential trace element, but a vanadium-deficiency disease has not been identified in humans. The estimated daily intake of the US population ranges from 10 to 60 micrograms.” The author also writes, “Vanadyl sulfate (a compound of vanadium) is a common supplement used to enhance weight training in athletes and the doses are up to 60 milligrams per day. In vitro (outside the living body or in an artificial environment) and animal studies indicate that vanadate and other vanadium compounds increase glucose transport activity and improve glucose metabolism.”
Researchers have projected the health benefits of vanadium. Studies have shown that it is not only beneficial in diabetes, as indicated in Barceloux’s article, but the metal can also lower the level of blood cholesterol in people with Type 2 diabetes. Although yet to be confirmed in the case of humans, research on animals has suggested that vanadium can be helpful in reducing high blood pressure.
Experts, however, warn that though vanadium’s anti-cancer effects may bring some hope in the treatment of breast cancer, certain precautions should be taken while administering it. This is because, they say, the metal has some adverse effects.
Studies have shown that in mania and depression, the level of vanadium in the blood remains substantially high. Excessive exposure to vanadium dust can also lead to eye and upper respiratory tract irritations. Moreover, excessive doses of vanadium can cause damage to the liver and kidneys.
“For a safe use of vanadium in the treatment of breast cancer, a proper dosage should first be determined through clinical trials,” says Dr Diptendra Sarkar, assistant professor of surgery at the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research, Calcutta. He adds, “Anti-cancer drugs do have certain adverse effects, but these shouldn’t outweigh the beneficial effects. Keeping this in account, vanadium should also be used in a way that its adverse effects don’t outweigh the benefits.”