Folic acid supplements commonly used to prevent birth defects and believed to lower risk of heart disease and stroke may soon be used to prevent cancer of the larynx.

In a small, preliminary study of people with precancerous lesions called leukoplakia, Italian researchers say that the lesions disappeared in about one in four given folic acid supplements, an over-the-counter B vitamin. Meanwhile, 44% of study participants experienced at least partial shrinking of lesions. Leukoplakia left unchecked can eventually turn into cancer.

All of the study participants took 5 milligrams of folic acid, three times a day for six months.

The Study

For the study, the researchers recruited 43 people who had been diagnosed with laryngeal leukoplakia. Some 88% were smokers, and all but three were men.

Because prior studies had shown that people with head and neck cancers and laryngeal leukoplakia often have low blood levels of folate. the natural form of folic add, the researchers wanted to learn if supplements of the nutrient could help prevent the progression of leukoplakia to cancer.

Blood tests were done periodically to ensure the volunteers were taking their supplements as requested. The researchers also measured the leukoplakias once a month.

About one-quarter of the group showed no response the folk acid regimen. Nearly half experienced a partial shrinkage of their leukoplakia. But 12 people—28%—had a "complete response," meaning their leukoplakia disappeared, say researchers.

Each year, nearly 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancers, inducing cancer of the larynx, according to the US National Cancer Institute. These types of cancer are most common in people older than 50, and tobacco use is the top risk factor.

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