Vitamin A could help treat and prevent the spread of prostate cancer. New research funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research at the University of York in the U.K. found that the vitamin switches on genes that halt the spread of the disease. The research was published this week in Oncogenesis.

The study, reported on medicalxpress.com, suggests that vitamin A-related compounds, like retinoic acid, which is made from the vitamin, could be used to enhance clinical treatments for prostate cancer. Professor Norman Maitland, Director of the YCR Cancer Research Unit in the Department of Biology at York, explains in a release: "Cancer arises from healthy cells going wrong. Certain controls can be turned off which allows the cancer to progress. For example, normal cells gain the ability to grow and invade the surrounding tissues. We have found that specific 'twin' genes are turned off in malignant prostate cancer stem cells. When we turn them back on using retinoic acid, the cancer becomes less aggressive. A type of retinoic acid is currently used to successfully treat a different cancer, promyelomcytic leukaemia.

Apart from non-melanoma skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in American men, according to the National Cancer Institute. African-American men have a higher incidence rate and at least twice the mortality rate compared with men of other racial and ethnic groups.

"It has been known for many years that low vitamin A in samples of men's blood is associated with prostate cancer, but nobody knew the mechanisms involved,” said Maitland. “This is an exciting new development which links an element from our diet to prostate cancer stem cells."