Comparison of low-dose isotretinoin with beta carotene to prevent oral carcinogenesis

N Engl J Med. 1993 Jan 7;328(1):15-20. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199301073280103.


Background: High-dose isotretinoin therapy has been determined to be an effective treatment for leukoplakia. However, a high rate of relapses and toxic reactions led us to conduct a trial of a much lower dose of isotretinoin in the hope of maintaining a response and limiting toxicity.

Methods: In the first phase of the study, 70 patients with leukoplakia underwent induction therapy with a high dose of isotretinoin (1.5 mg per kilogram of body weight per day) for three months; in the second phase, patients with responses or stable lesions were randomly assigned to maintenance therapy with either beta carotene (30 mg per day) or a low dose of isotretinoin (0.5 mg per kilogram per day) for nine months.

Results: In the first phase, the rate of response to high-dose induction therapy in the 66 patients who could be evaluated was 55 percent (36 patients). The lesions of seven patients progressed, and therefore they did not participate in the second phase of the trial. Of the 59 patients included in the second phase, 33 were assigned to beta carotene therapy and 26 to low-dose isotretinoin therapy; these two groups did not differ significantly in prognostic factors. Of the 53 patients who could be evaluated, 22 in the low-dose isotretinoin group and 13 in the beta carotene group responded to maintenance therapy or continued to have stable lesions (92 percent vs. 45 percent, P < 0.001). In situ carcinoma developed in one patient in each group, and invasive squamous-cell carcinoma in five patients in the beta carotene group. Toxicity was generally mild, though greater in the group given low-dose isotretinoin therapy.

Conclusions: When preceded by high-dose induction therapy, low-dose isotretinoin therapy was significantly more active against leukoplakia than beta carotene and was easily tolerated.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / prevention & control*
  • Carotenoids / administration & dosage
  • Carotenoids / adverse effects
  • Carotenoids / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Factors*
  • Isotretinoin / administration & dosage
  • Isotretinoin / adverse effects
  • Isotretinoin / therapeutic use*
  • Leukoplakia, Oral / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mouth Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Remission Induction
  • beta Carotene


  • Immunologic Factors
  • beta Carotene
  • Carotenoids
  • Isotretinoin