Purpose: Retinoids have proven chemopreventive efficacy in both preclinical and clinical studies. This trial was designed to confirm the finding of an earlier uncontrolled trial that the synthetic retinoid etretinate had major activity in reversing squamous metaplasia found in the bronchial epithelium of chronic smokers.
Patients and methods: We prospectively evaluated 152 smokers with bronchoscopy and obtained biopsies from six sites. Subjects with dysplasia and/or a metaplasia index of greater than 15% were randomly assigned to receive either 1 mg/kg isotretinoin or placebo daily for 6 months. Of 86 subjects randomized (41 isotretinoin, 45 placebo), 69 were reevaluated at the completion of treatment.
Results: In the group as a whole, the metaplasia index decreased over time from a mean +/- SE of 35.8% +/- 2.7% at baseline to 28.1% +/- 3.3% at the completion of treatment (P = .01) by repeated measures analysis of variance [ANOVA]); a reduction in the metaplasia index (> 8%) was noted in both isotretinoin and placebo groups (19 of 35 [54.3%] and 20 of 34 [58.8%], respectively). Complete reversal of squamous metaplasia was noted in nine subjects from each group. However, the magnitudes of the mean metaplasia index changes did not differ significantly in the two treatment groups. In both groups, smoking cessation resulted in significant declines in the extent of squamous metaplasia, whereas no significant change in metaplasia index was found among those who continued to smoke.
Conclusion: Squamous metaplasia was frequently observed in bronchial biopsy samples from chronic smokers. From this study, we conclude that isotretinoin has no effect on squamous metaplasia, a potential intermediate end point of bronchial carcinogenesis. Although determining the exact role of isotretinoin in lung cancer prevention requires further study, the finding that there was a significant decrease in squamous metaplasia in the placebo group emphasizes the critical importance of a placebo-controlled study design in chemoprevention trials using intermediate end points.