KUALA LUMPUR - A group of researchers is embarking on a clinical trial on breast-cancer patients to find out if the vitamin E extracted from palm oil is an effective anti-cancer agent.
The research is led by Professor Yip Cheng Har and her team of researchers at University of Malaya Medical Centre, together with Associate Professor Nur Aishah Mohd Taib, and in collaboration with Dr Kalanithi Nesaretnam and her team of scientists at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).
Vitamin E is an essential nutrient for the body and is made up of four variants of tocopherols and another four called tocotrienols.
Tocopherols are sourced from oilseeds such as soya oil, canola and sunflower, while tocotrienols are only found in abundance in palm oil and rice bran oil.
The majority of research on vitamin E has been focused on alpha-tocopherol, which is the vitamin E widely used as a supplement in the market now.
But Malaysian researchers, chiefly from MPOB, have been studying palm tocotrienols since the 1980s and their research into the medical effects of tocotrienols, which focused mainly on breast cancer, has showed promising results in breast cancer cell lines and in animals.
And recently, studies in the laboratory on the different variants or isomers of the tocotrienol (alpha, beta, gamma and delta), showed that the gamma and delta forms in particular, seems more potent as an anti-cancer agent.
"However, just because a product works in cancer cells and in animals, it does not mean that it will work in human, since a human is more complex," said Nur Aishah.
But the studies are promising enough to warrant a clinical trial on human subjects on the full effects and efficacy of the gamma-delta tocotrienols (GDT).
"We want to assess whether the GDT has any significant side effects and if it has an anti-cancer effect.
"We are doing this study on women with advanced breast cancer, who have no other options of treatment, that is, they have no more chemotherapy to take, or they have refused any further treatment," said Nur Aishah.
The study, which is yet to take off, pending the recruitment of volunteers, has received a research grant of RM2 million (S$822,600) from the Performance Management and Delivery Unit last November, to be disbursed through MPOB.
The clinical trial is expected to be completed in five years and some 300 volunteers will be needed.
"If the trial shows that GDT has a significant anti-cancer effect in women with advanced breast cancer, it will benefit these women who may not be suitable for more rigorous therapies like chemotherapy. We will continue to test this drug in another situation, perhaps as adjuvant therapy (follow-up therapy) in women after the treatment for breast cancer," she added.
Tocotrienols have been stirring quite a rage of interest in the scientific community in recent years. Today, it accounts for nearly 30 per cent of all research in vitamin E.
Malaysia is the world's biggest tocotrienol producer and exporter. A kilogramme of palm oil vitamin E retails at US$500 (S$629).
Annually, Malaysia exports some RM50 million worth of palm oil health supplements to Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan.