Fact Check

Did Scientists Cure Cancer, But No One Took Notice?

Pharmaceutical companies aren't interested in a 'simple cure for cancer' because it hasn't been proved an effective treatment, not because it isn't patentable.

Published Dec. 30, 2011

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Researchers have found a simple cure for cancer, but major pharmaceutical companies are not interested because it isn't patentable.
What's True

Preliminary research indicated dichloroacetate (DCA) might show promise for treating some forms of cancer.

What's False

DCA is a not a proven "cure" for cancer, nor is it being spurned by pharmaceutical companies because it is not patentable.

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 in TV. It is a simple technique using very basic drug. The method employs dichloroacetate, which is currently used to treat metabolic disorders. So, there is no concern of side effects or about their long term effects.

This drug doesn't require a patent, so anyone can employ it widely and cheaply compared to the costly cancer drugs produced by major pharmaceutical companies.

Canadian scientists tested this dichloroacetate (DCA) on human's cells; it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells and left the healthy cells alone. It was tested on Rats inflicted with severe tumors; their cells shrank when they were fed with water supplemented with DCA. The drug is widely available and the technique is easy to use, why the major drug companies are not involved? Or the Media interested in this find?

In human bodies there is a natural cancer fighting human cell, the mitochondria, but they need to be triggered to be effective. Scientists used to think that these mitochondria cells were damaged and thus ineffective against cancer. So they used to focus on glycolysis, which is less effective in curing cancer and more wasteful. The drug manufacturers focused on this glycolysis method to fight cancer. This DCA on the other hand doesn’t rely on glycolysis instead on mitochondria; it triggers the mitochondria which in turn fights the cancer cells.

The side effect of this is it also reactivates a process called apoptosis. You see, mitochondria contain an all-too-important self-destruct button that can't be pressed in cancer cells. Without it, tumors grow larger as cells refuse to be extinguished. Fully functioning mitochondria, thanks to DCA, can once again die.

With glycolysis turned off, the body produces less lactic acid, so the bad tissue around cancer cells doesn't break down and seed new tumors.

Pharmaceutical companies are not investing in this research because DCA method cannot be patented, without a patent they can’t make money, like they are doing now with their AIDS Patent. Since the pharmaceutical companies won't develop this, the article says other independent laboratories should start producing this drug and do more research to confirm all the above findings and produce drugs. All the groundwork can be done in collaboration with the Universities, who will be glad to assist in such research and can develop an effective drug for curing cancer.

In 2007, medical researchers at the University of Alberta reported that dichloroacetate (DCA), a relatively simple compound, had showed promise for treating cancer in rodent models, and the university's DCA Research Team announced they would begin clinical trials of DCA on human patients in the spring of 2007. One of the members of that research team, Dr. Evangelos Michelakis, expressed concern that because DCA was not patented, the potential profit margins in marketing it would likely be small, and thus it might be difficult to obtain funding for DCA clinical trials from private investors:

The DCA compound is not patented and not owned by any pharmaceutical company, and, therefore, would likely be an inexpensive drug to administer, says Michelakis, the Canada Research Chair in Pulmonary Hypertension and Director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Program with Capital Health, one of Canada's largest health authorities.

However, as DCA is not patented, Michelakis is concerned that it may be difficult to find funding from private investors to test DCA in clinical trials. He is grateful for the support he has already received from publicly funded agencies, such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and he is hopeful such support will continue and allow him to conduct clinical trials of DCA on cancer patients.

Unfortunately, this preliminary information soon led to hyperbolic claims that a "simple cure for cancer" had been found but a lack of interest on the part of pharmaceutical companies was preventing it from reaching cancer patients, prompting some desperate cancer sufferers to seek it out for themselves from unscrupulous vendors:

Note that there were two assumptions about the study [in 2007]. First, these bloggers and pundits assumed that the cell culture and animal work were definitive evidence that DCA might be a "cure" for cancer. Second, the assumption was that, because the drug was out of patent and very cheap to make, neither the government nor pharmaceutical companies would be interested in funding it, thus condemning thousands, maybe millions, of people to die of cancer unnecessarily. Unfortunately, [articles] featured headlines to that effect and quotes by the investigator Evangelos Michelakis lamenting how he had had difficulties finding funding to do the next step, clinical trials in cancer. As a result of these sensationalistic stories, unscrupulous "businessmen" sought to bring DCA to the masses. A frenzy of sorts was unleashed, with desperate cancer patients scrambling to find DCA.

Despite investigators' concerns about potential difficulties in obtaining funding, DCA studies have been undertaken, and in 2010 the substance was in the news again after researchers published a paper reporting their results with testing DCA on glioblastoma tumors:

The researchers looked at the impact of DCA on tumor cells from patients with an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma, which generally does not respond well to treatment.

They performed some very sophisticated lab experiments which demonstrated the impact of DCA on the tumor cells from 49 patients with this cancer. The experiments generally support the effectiveness of DCA at altering cell behavior.

The investigators also treated five patients who had glioblastoma with DCA. The only side effect they found was a reversible change in peripheral nerve function. No other side effects were described. Of the five patients, three had progressing disease despite prior treatment and two were newly diagnosed. Those two patients were treated with different protocols. The results of the treatments were variable as were the approaches to treatment. Nonetheless, the report shows some MRI pictures pre and post treatment which show regression of the cancers in two patients.

As Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society, wrote of that last study in 2010, DCA studies appear to be worth pursuing, but the substance is still far from being proved an effective treatment for any type of cancer, much less a cancer "cure":

How would I characterize this report?

Simply stated, the science is intriguing and I believe is something to be pursued both in the lab and in the clinic. BUT, and this is a big but, it is not a cure for glioblastoma or any other cancer based on these results.

My concern is that this paper is going to be transformed — like the last one — into something that it is not, namely that this is definitive evidence that DCA is the magic bullet for cancer treatment, particularly in glioblastoma (which is a cancer that has a very poor prognosis).

This research still needs lots of work before we know whether it works or doesn't work, and whether it is really safe or not when given to patients with cancer under a variety of circumstances.

If that sounds overly cautious, so be it. I have seen too many dashed hopes in my medical career which make me a bit cautious about reports like this. That's not to say I don't think it could work — it could, as I mentioned above — but I want to see evidence in well done trials that prove the point that DCA is effective in the treatment of which cancers under what circumstances.

In the case of DCA, internet traffic zoomed with reports of its purported success in curing cancer — in lab animals. Clinics sprung up, and are probably still active. The risk is that we are going to see a resurgence of this now that the new report has been issued.

We shall see how this progresses. Hopefully, clinical trials will proceed appropriately.

And I stand by my skepticism, while encouraging further research to answer the fundamental question whether or not DCA really works in treating cancer.

In the meantime, caution is advised. Don't become the victim of a cancer scam. The scamsters are sure to follow this report as night follows day.

As New Scientist noted as recently as July 2016, dichloroacetate still has not lived up to the potential ascribed to it several years ago:

Almost a decade ago, New Scientist broke a story about dichloroacetate (DCA), a simple chemical used to treat rare metabolic disorders that was also showing remarkable cancer-killing properties. We were inundated with requests for more information — including how to enroll in clinical trials or buy the drug online.

DCA was worth investigating as a cancer treatment, but [it] has yet to live up to its promise. The US Food and Drug Administration eventually had to step in and shut down websites selling it illegally.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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