Let’s talk about dichloroacetate and cancer
“Scientists find the cure for cancer, but pharma companies don’t care because they can’t patent it.”
This is going around Tumblr like an out-of-control wildfire. Well consider this the bucket brigade sent to put out the flames. If you see the post I reference, send someone a (polite) message to their “Ask” box and direct them here. Let’s spread the Word of Science, friends. If you don’t read any further, let me just get right to the point:
- No one has “cured cancer” and dichloroacetate is not (yet, or maybe ever) a miracle drug.
- Pharma companies are not big soft teddy bears, but they are not conspiring against your health and well-being.
This whole saga seems to be linked to a Hubpages post from approximately four years ago. So it isn’t even new. HubPages is an interesting website, because you can say essentially anything you want and no one will fact-check any of it. That’s pretty much the only reason the original post exists. But like any great deception, this one is based in some truth. So what is true about it? (click through … )
Cancer cells do undergo metabolic changes. Whereas most cells in your body would rather undergo oxidative phosphorylation (the most efficient way to make energy), cancer cells are forced to find other ways to make energy. This is because they have high energy demands (growing all the time) and because they grow so quickly that they often fail to form all the blood vessels they need to deliver oxygen to a tumor mass (oxygen is needed for respiration). So cancer cells turn to a process called glycolysis - the same thing your muscles do when they are under stress. Originally discovered by Otto Warburg, this has been known since the 1950’s and is termed the “Warburg Effect”.
It’s important to remember that the Warburg Effect is exactly that, an effect of a cell mass turning cancerous. There is some connection to cancer genes when you really dig deeply into the biology of it, but for the most part it is the cancer cells’ reaction to being starved. They just grow too fast to be fed well.
So what about dichloroacetate (DCA)? It’s a byproduct of chlorinating water and chemists have known about it for decades. It’s very cheap to make and very common (it’s actually in your drinking water right now). It turns out that when you put this chemical on cancer cells in a petri dish, it can lead to their death. That is because the mitochondria (the energy-making organelles) and their cell-killing power called apoptosis is restored. DCA even shrunk human tumors in rats when they were given the drug.
What’s not to love about this drug? If you stopped here, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the wave of the future in cancer therapy. But we won’t stop here, because there’s much more to explore.
A very early clinical trial of this drug in 5 people with a cancer called glioblastoma were given DCA and their tumors shrunk. But they were also taking a cancer drug called Temodar at the same time. So we don’t know what effect DCA actually had on the cancer cells, specifically. It also hasn’t been studied in the hundreds of different types of cancer in various tissues of the body. To put it plainly, DCA just hasn’t been proven to do that much yet.
When you’re a drug company, proof is the key. The average cost of bringing a new drug onto the market today is more than $800 million. This counts all the testing, clinical trials and regulatory mumbo jumbo that happen along the way. For a company to agree to put up that kind of money, you’re going to need more than a few rats with shrunken tumors. As one blogger put it at Daily Kos, “If my wife were a mouse, her multiple sclerosis would have been cured back in the 80s.”
A big part of this false news that’s going around is that the drug companies have no interest in this because they can’t patent it. If they had invented DCA, they would have 20 years of protection with a patent where they could own all of its uses and make the most money. But since they don’t own it, they don’t care. If you hate big corporations, that’s an easy narrative for you to believe. It’s just not true.
Drug companies and doctors have a long history with being behind non-patented drugs. Aspirin is a perfect case. Its uses in cardiac medicine are still expanding, it is widely produced today and hasn’t been under patent since 1917. The UK Cancer Research Council has current agreements to license off-patent drugs as well, including one called fenretinide.
Cancer is a horrible class of diseases, and one that touches many people’s lives. It’s natural for people to want to try anything they can to get better. But it’s also a very complicated set of diseases, and treating it is just as difficult. Testing drugs and getting them into actual people, at safe doses and in the right combinations, takes a long time to figure out and is very expensive. Drugs like DCA and other metabolic treatments are actually a major area of research in cancer biology. But DCA isn’t the miracle drug (yet) that these posts claim it to be, and there is no conspiracy to keep it out of the hands of patients.
The people telling you otherwise are misinformed, or worse, charlatans trying to lie to you. A Canadian man even exploited people’s desires for a cure to the point that he sold them fake DCA and was arrested in the US shortly after. EDIT: I was also pointed to this study, where DCA was shown to be flat-out poisonous to certain nerve cells.
We all want to cure cancer, but trust the science and do your homework (or ask me to do it for you).
Again, if you see someone post this, please send them a polite message to their “Ask” box linking them here and ask them to delete the bad science.
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