You may remember my previous blogs and other media reports from a couple of years ago about the new “miracle” chemical for cancer treatment. The name of the chemical is dichloroacetate, more commonly known as DCA.
When first reported in early 2007, a research paper started a worldwide firestorm of interest and debate about the use of DCA in cancer treatment. Of concern was the fact that since the chemical was long off patent no one was interested in funding further research given the limited potential economic return of the investment.
Well, DCA is back. And in fairness the science as reported is interesting. But it is the report that DCA appeared to have some benefit in the treatment of aggressive brain cancer that is probably going to get the headlines.
Without going into a lot of details, DCA is a commercially available chemical (you can order it off the internet) that has previously been used medically in the treatment of a condition where lactic acid builds up in the body. It is reported to have limited side effects, primarily neurologic.
In the previous experiments, animal and “bench lab” science suggested DCA could reverse the growth of cancer cells. The theory that DCA could work in cancer was based on a longstanding observation that cancer cells rely on a certain way of getting their energy that was essentially unique to cancer. Alter the pathway—so the theory goes—and you can disrupt the growth of cancer cells. The suggestion of the research paper published in January 2007 was that DCA successfully altered that pathway and had the desired effect on the cancer cells and transplanted tumors.
It turns out—as I reported in another blog in August 2008—that the same “energy” theory has been used to develop PET scans, which are commonly used today in cancer diagnosis and treatment.
If you read the comments I made at that time, I made the connection between the two and wrote the following:
“So maybe the DCA researcher wasn’t so “far out” after all. And it doesn’t take a huge leap to think about the fact that if researchers could take advantage of this phenomenon, it could indeed be a possible approach to the treatment of cancer.
“I actually asked one of my expert colleagues at the Wednesday meeting about that possibility. He told me that in fact several researchers were pursuing exactly that question. They are trying to find out if the same abnormal glucose metabolism that makes a PET scan useful can be applied to the treatment of cancer.
“I still remain very cautious about the use of DCA in patients. I don’t believe it is a magic bullet, or even that it will have any benefit in the treatment of cancer. We simply don’t have the research that supports that conclusion. As I often say, it is a long road from the bench to the bedside.
“But this experience should also serve as a reminder to all of us that you can never say never. You always have to be open to new thoughts and new ideas, and you always have to be prepared to readdress your prior thoughts and opinions based on new and/or additional information.”
I even called the lead researcher’s office in Canada to see if I could more updated information on the progress with DCA, and was told that they were concluding some studies in brain cancer and they were hoping to get them published.
Well, that publication has now occurred this week in Science Translational Medicine. And the results are interesting.
In this study, 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—which are much too complicated to describe here—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.
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.
Early in my cancer training there was a substance isolated by a researcher that was supposedly non-toxic and would cure leukemia. The research center where I was working was inundated from people around the globe who wanted this treatment, especially after the lead researcher injected himself on a nationwide morning show to demonstrate its apparent lack of toxicity.
Only grams of this medicine existed. Fortunes were offered in return for getting this miracle drug.
But the miracle drug—after reasonable clinical trials were done—didn’t work after all.
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.
I am not delusional and think that a lid can be put on this information and the expectations it will generate so research can progress in an orderly fashion. But I am also not delusional in thinking that people aren’t going to be subject to outlandish claims and promises about this new cancer cure. There are people out there who are more than willing to separate desperate patients from whatever they own in an attempt to get DCA treatment—let alone knowing if the treatment even contains DCA, which is in limited supply for human use.
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.