scientists have cured cancer! – or have they?

By Alison Campbell 21/01/2012

The other day my friend Renee sent through this link, & her thoughts. “This article (& website) set my woo-ometer off big time,” she said. The article’s entitled Scientists cure cancer, but no one takes notice, and begins thusly:

Canadian researchers find a simple cure for cancer, but major pharmaceutical companies are not interested. Researchers at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, have cured cancer last week, yet there is a little ripple in the news or on TV.

“The comments make fascinating and infuriating reading,” Renee commented, citing one in particular:

Cancer is a VERY hyped up misunderstood disease, Im gunna look into this this is very interesting, but cannabis, mdma, turmeric, milk thistle, and many other natural herbs & super foods, a diet rich in real nutrition & super foods will prevent it, so will using cannabis, our endocannabinoids are our natural defense ageist [against] caner also which is why cannabis cures cancer, cannabis supplements our endocannabinoids with its own the only 2 sources found naturally with a system tied into just about every system in our body’s.

Let’s deal quickly with our commenter, who seems to have a rather strong focus on the use of cannabis, along with channelling people like Mike Adams. (I did wonder if s/he was one of Orac’s very few banned commenters, who had a similar one-track mind.) Their statements about cannabis preventing or curing cancer are easily checked by looking at whether regular users have a lower incidence of cancer than the rest of the population. And this has been done. This study (PubMed is our friend) found that use of marijuana/cannabis didn’t increase the risk of cancer overall, & “was not associated with tobacco-related cancers”, but that there was some indication that it might increase the risk of “site-specific cancers” (prostate & cervical). Other studies have similar findings, but our commenter needs to remember that ‘no increased risk’ is not the same as ‘no risk’.

Now, on to the original article, which was posted on May 15 last year. Scirus & Google Scholar are also our friends – and neither of them turn up any 2011 press releases from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, let alone a scientific paper from that year demonstrating that DCA cures cancer. This is a rather large red flag, although going back a year or so we do find that University of Alberta (UofA from now on) researchers published some preliminary work back in 2007 (the link’s to a popular article based on a university press release). The American Cancer Society treated this release with a certain level of skepticism.

And there are other red flags. First up, cancer is not a single disease, and it is highly unlikely that there will be one single, unitary cure. (If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s superb book The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer.) And the article contains some rather basic biological errors: for example, its author describes mitochondria as “natural cancer fighting human cells”, & of glycolysis as being less effective at fighting cancer. None of this gives me any confidence in the accuracy or veracity of the article.

What the UofA researchers actually said was that cancer cells seem to suppress the action of their mitochondria (the site of aerobic respiration in our cells), moving to glycolysis for ATP release. This makes them extremely hungry for glucose, because the cells need energy to grow but can gain only a little ATP from each molecule of glucose. Drugs that target this abnormal metabolism could be a signficant tool in treating cancer. In the UofA research, when isolated (in vitro)cells from a number of different human cancers were exposed to dichloroacetate (DCA), the chemical seemed to switch the mitochondria back to normal metabolic pathways & reduce the proliferation of tumour cells. It also appeared to shrink tumours in rats – all rather promising, you’d think. But that’s all it is, a potential treatment that has so far undergone a phase I clinical trial, discussed here by Orac. (Interestingly, the article Renee sent me doesn’t mention this trial at all, suggesting it’s simply a re-hash of an even earlier posting.)

Orac notes that this trial involved two aspects – looking at the effect of DCA on excised glioblastomas (a type of brain cancer), & examining its effects on 5 patients with glioblastoma. He also points out a shortcoming of the trial – that the patients were also receiving other chemotherapeutic drugs, together with surgery &/or radiation. This means that it’s very hard to tease out any impact of DCA alone, which makes claims about its efficacy rather premature.

I’m afraid I do have a tendency to cynicism, & my cynical side wonders if the post that Renee came across was written in order to increase sales of DCA… Certainly there are a number of purveyors of this chemical, many of whom would have us believe that doctors & pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in preventing people from gaining access to this ‘miracle cure’. Which is a long way from reality. Here, to wrap up, is Orac’s take on it:

Balancing harms versus benefits, risks and rewards, all the while doing the best for each patient that we can is very, very hard. One has to remember that cancer is not just one disease. Not only that, but even a single type cancer is often not just one disease. As I have written extensively about before, cancer is incredibly complex. Because of that complexity, it’s incredibly unlikely that any one drug will be any sort of “magic bullet” to cure cancer. Worse, simply using a drug like DCA outside the auspices of well-designed clinical trials will virtually guarantee that we will never know for sure whether the drug actually works. Because of that, as frustrating as it is, as slow as it is, letting science take its course to determine if DCA works, how it works, and for what cancers it works is the best method to make sure that the most patients are helped and the fewest are harmed. I don’t say this because I want DCA to fail; I say it because I want DCA to be shown to be an efficacious treatment for cancer.

We need all the good treatments we can get.

(After I wrote this I found that PZ also blogged about the story when it first came out. For those who are interested, he explains in some detail why DCA’s ability .)