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Jun 09 2012

Hey you guys, alt med has like totally cured cancer!

I just have to say this: I hate responding to mail that alludes to massive conspiracies, possibly more than any other kind of mail.  When Lynnea and I talked to Guy P. Harrison recently, he explained a very interesting perspective on the difference between conspiracy theories and other popular but wrong beliefs.  Someone who believes in miscellaneous magical stuff like ghosts and young earth creationism is likely to be coming from a place of thinking too little.  Someone who believes conspiracy theories more likely thinks far too much: they invent patterns and create connections where none exist.  They also spend an enormous time chasing these ideas down a huge rabbit hole of confirmation bias, and generate way, way more spurious content than I can reasonably deal with as a newcomer to their ideas.

Therefore, you can probably imagine my trepidation when we received this email from “Clark Kent” (I’m assuming it’s a pseudonym).

This a response to the Feb 19 podcast. Rough quote “If someone had a cure for cancer why not come fourth and claim your million dollars..”. Instead of being negative perhaps you can review that podcast with this injection of evidence.

The evidence was presented in the form of a YouTube link, titled “Cancer Cured In Canada, But Big Pharma Says NO WAY!”

[...]

CRITICAL WARNING: I’m only posting said link after issuing a stern warning that this does not, in any way, shape or form, constitute endorsement of its content.
Okay, here it is.

Here’s my reply:

Clark,

This is the first time I’m hearing about DCA, and I hope you will forgive me for some amount of skepticism.  To me, the video plays very much like a slick internet marketing pitch, and the typical conspiracy language doesn’t really help much.

I tried looking up DCA online, and one of the first things to catch my attention was an extremely lengthy and detailed Wikipedia article… which on closer examination reads like this:

DCA has been effectively used for treating cancer.[citation needed] Cancer cells change the way cells metabolize oxygen in a way that promotes cancer cells’ survival. In laboratory studies of isolated cancer cells grown in tissue culture, DCA restores the original metabolism, and promotes their self-destruction.[citation needed] This has led to the use of DCA for treating cancer, by individuals experimenting with it themselves, by doctors administering it to patients as a non-approved drug, by scientists testing it in cancer tissue cultures in cell culture and in mice, and in human Phase II studies. DCA has improved certain biochemical parameters, but it has not demonstrated improved survival.[citation needed]

The rest of the article is filled with a fascinating amount of techno-babble, yet terribly few corroborating results published in mainstream medical journals.  Upon reading through the comments, I discover that there have been a few attempts to introduce material that is skeptical of the articles claims, but they have been aggressively stamped out as non-notable, while several attempts have been made to introduce stuff like testimonial support — EXACTLY what quack medicine loves in place of rigorous clinical trials.

So I’ve been browsing through some various skeptical articles and links found herehere, and here.  I have to tell you: it sounds very much to me like some preliminary research was done, some medical journalists exaggerated the significance, alt medicine groups picked it up as a new cause célèbre… and now here you are.

I am not a medical professional and, I suspect, neither are you.  This is exactly why I have a need to rely on finding out what mainstream, peer reviewed literature among professionals with relevant credentials have to say on a subject.  From what I’m seeing, such journals are not supporting your conclusion that this is a miracle cancer drug, but rather an interesting result that has been rejected as a drug because not nearly enough study has been done to establish its real benefits, side effects, and potential dangers.

Unfortunately, past experience tells me that, as likely as not, someone like you who sends an initial short video link is probably heavily invested in promoting your claims.  As such, I am already gritting my teeth in expectation that your next message will bury me under an avalanche of additional videos and dubious links — which, again, I have neither the time or the inclination to chase down.  I imagine you will dismiss medical journals as a tool of a well financed conspiracy to keep people sick and ignorant.  If such is the case, all I can say is that you and I have very different concepts of how science works.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Gem Newman

    That’s funny. I’m literally writing a segment for the Winnipeg Skeptics podcast Life, the Universe & Everything Else on the subject of cancer cures right now, and I just finished talking about DCA.

    …which means I have some links handy! I won’t link-bomb you, but both Steve Novella and Orac have discussed this several times. From Skepticblog: Another Cure for Cancer? and from Respectful Insolence: Dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer: Déjà vu all over again.

    I’ll happily commiserate with you about dealing with conspiracy theorists. Hey, at least he’s not a 9/11 truther.

  2. 2
    terrycollins

    This story get circulated because it is plausible that pharmaceutical companies would not want to research a drug they can’t patent. The assertion is not there is a conspiracy, but there is no money to be made so they won’t bother.

    The claim lets one assume there are no other agencies, universities, governments that do clinical tests. Forget about the millions of dollars donated to cancer research each year to independent organizations looking for a cure.

    1. 2.1
      gfunk

      The conspiracy will probably come in the next email. The first emails are usually testing the water, looking for something to flare them up. The next step is likely “big pharma won’t allow governments or other organizations to fund the research because of their financial interests” etc.

    2. 2.2
      Alethea Kuiper-Belt

      Also don’t forget that no pharmaceutical company ever makes a profit on a drug that they can’t patent. That’s why they never manufacture and sell things like aspirin, bicarb based antacids, saline nasal sprays, or vitamins.

      1. terrycollins

        Good point.

    3. 2.3
      ibbica

      I like to point people who claim the “no-one’s studying it because pharma profit blah blah” line to the research being done on progesterone (an endogenous hormone) and traumatic brain injury. i.e. potential ‘miracle cure’ (short version: a single dose of progesterone given shortly after TBI dramatically reduces secondary brain damage with little-to-no side effects) that has been (and is still being) experimentally and clinically tested, despite the, ahem, difficulties finding “commercial” sponsors.

      Pharma companies don’t exactly have a monopoly on interest in human health…

      1. meskibob

        I have a professor buddy who is actually part of an upcoming SBN (Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology) symposium with the guy doing the progesterone injection research. From what I remember of the conversation (and I’m not a biologist), the symposium should hopefully provide some pretty convincing data for why the progesterone works at reducing stroke onset/impact based off animal studies on estrogen production in the brain.
        http://www.sbn.org/meetings/2012/default.aspx (Symposium 1)

        (note: first time posting, but couldn’t pass up a chance to provide hearsay of first hand research)

  3. 3
    Jasper of Maine

    If the goal is to keep people sick so the companies can make money off them, why not just make the cancer treatment ridiculously expensive? It’s not exactly odd for medicines to cost an arm and a leg already.

    1. 3.1
      gfunk

      I think you might have missed their point- they say that DCA “can’t be patented” so no one can own it and make money on it. I have a feeling that is hopelessly naive and that “big pharma” would find a way to tweak DCA to get a patent for their drug if it was really promising.

      1. Drivebyposter

        My thoughts exactly. All they’d really need is DCA, NOW WITH VITAMINS or something like that. Some proprietary blend of something thrown in or combine it with another cancer fighting drugs and/or something that decreases side effects of DCA and voila! They win all of the cancer monies and glory.

        1. Rick Pikul

          All they would have to do is patent the pill/serum.

          They may not have a patent on the active ingredient, but once you add the filler, binging agents, coating, etc. etc. you have something that is easy to patent.

          Why do you think that they keep coming up with variants that are ‘easier on your stomach’, ‘long lasting’, and such? It lets them reset the patent clock.

      2. MichaelD

        It does look very hard to tweak its just CHCl2COOH. But according to Novella’s article the associated toxicity is high. So drug companies could just work on combining it with a targeting molecule and patent that.

  4. 4
    derekmeyers

    Reminds me of that guy that was cured of AIDS because of something with having to do with blood transfusion and mutation of blood cells……I think. So yeah, cure for AIDS, skepticism for the cure for cancer. What type of cancer is there a cure for anyways? Last time I checked it could pop up anywhere. New and innovative viruses and diseases pop-up almost all the time now, “The world is out to get us I tell ya.”

  5. 5
    MichaelD

    The huge red flag on this before going anywhere is “cure for cancer”. Cancer isn’t one disease, it’s an outcome. It’s like saying you have a fix for faulty wiring. Is it a crossed wire, frayed insulation improperly grounded, loose connection? No one solution can fix all cases of faulty wiring (short of an electrician).

    1. 5.1
      ibbica

      Well, to be fair, shutting down all cellular proliferation would cure any cancer. To extend your analogy, simply shut off the main power line to the house…

      Admittedly, not always the best idea.

    2. 5.2
      A nym too

      This!

      Also, in vitro =/= in vivo. Pepsi, ketchup, pasta sauce, Cheeto dust, and ice, are probably able to kill most types of cells grown in vitro.

      It’s finding a substance that works in vivo, that’s the holy graij of science, It isn’t something some random person could design, then test, in their garage.

  6. 6
    jacobfromlost

    It’s too bad conspiracy theories get so much attention when there are lines of research that look very promising. I’d be willing to bet that cancer will be easily treatable within 50 years–perhaps in a variety of ways, and perhaps as several lines of separate research make the problem next to simple.

  7. 7
    Kilian Hekhuis

    Funnily enough, all those unsbstantiated claims are purged from Wikipedia, it seems.

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