Nicotine remedies – designed to help smokers kick their habit – may have the potential to cause mouth cancer.
That’s according to new research funded by the Medical Research Council.
Scientists have discovered that the levels of nicotine in smoking cessation therapies such as lozenges and chewing gums could increase the risk of mouth cancer.
Unlike other cigarette components such as tar and carbon monoxide, it was not thought to cause cancer.
The research is published in the international online science journal PLoS ONE.
But Dr Vinod Joshi, founder of the Mouth Cancer Foundation, was wary of the results. He said: ‘This study suggests that nicotine could influence the growth of cancerous cells. While the results are based on sound science, we have to remember that the study was done in a relatively small number of cell samples that had been grown in the lab. The researchers themselves stress, however, that further research is needed to conclusively determine whether this is indeed the case.’
He added: ‘Smoking is far more dangerous, and people who are using nicotine replacement to give up should continue to use it and consult their GPs if they are concerned. Nicotine replacement therapy can save lives.’
The study was co-funded by the Medical Research Council PhD studentship and the Institute of Dentistry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London.
Lead author Dr Muy-Teck Teh, of the Institute of Dentistry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University London, and his team investigated the influence of the gene FOXM1 on mouth cancer.
FOXM1 was already known to be expressed in higher levels in many other types of cancer.
Dr Teh said: ‘Our study found that FOXM1 was enhanced during the early progressive stages of mouth cancer. This means if someone has increased levels of FOXM1 in their mouth, it could indicate the early stages of mouth cancer.’
While the researchers were studying the influence of FOXM1, they also investigated the effect different tobacco substances had on human mouth cells.
‘We were surprised to find that nicotine increased the levels of FOXM1 in the cells,’ Dr Teh said.
‘We used the same amount of nicotine found in tobacco replacement therapies such as chewing gums and the amount was enough to activate the gene.’
Mouth cancer affects nearly 5,000 people in the UK each year and there has been a 17% increase in cases during the last four years.
‘Although we acknowledge the importance of encouraging people to quit smoking, our research suggests nicotine found in lozenges and chewing gums may increase the risk of mouth cancer,’ Dr Teh said.
‘We’ve showed the FOXM1 gene is activated by nicotine in human mouth cells which raises the possibility that nicotine could potentially increase the risk of mouth cancer. We want to stress, however, that further research is needed to conclusively determine whether this is indeed the case. There is no doubt however about the harmful effects of smoking, so smokers should make every effort to quit,’ warned Dr Teh.
For further information, visit www.mouthcancerfoundation.org.