Yesterday, I was being mildly harangued by a cancer quack — I know, this is usually Orac‘s beat, but there’s a lot of non-specific cross-talk by ignoramuses, wouldn’t you know. Anyway, this quack told me I’m supposed to read this book by another quack, Travis Christofferson, and didn’t I know that the Warburg effect was the key to curing cancer? This is annoying, because when I’m given a source I feel obligated to look it up, so I had to waste time digging around the internet for Christofferson. Fortunately, this guy is easy to dismiss.
He has a website titled
Single Cause, Single Cure. That’s right, he claims that there is a single cause for cancer, and it’s a metabolic disorder cause by your bad diet. There’s also a single general strategy for treating it, which involves targeting the Warburg effect with a ketogenic diet, among other broad metabolic treatments.
First strike: treating cancer as a single, simple disease caused by one factor. We know this isn’t true. I recently wrote about Tissue Organization Field Theory, that postulates that one factor in generating cancers might be epigenetic shifts caused by the cell’s environment, but no one (well, no one sensible) thinks that’s the only cause. We know about the effect of carcinogens, which may damage DNA; we know about inherited genetic predispositions caused by variations in gene sequence; we know about effects of local inflammation; there are viruses that can induce transformations to a cancerous state. We’ve taken cancers apart gene by gene and found the frequent players that trigger the cancer, and they are genes that regulate, for instance, cell proliferation, cell signaling, and yes, cell metabolism. You are not going to fix a broken retinoblastoma gene with a low-carb diet.
Second strike: Christofferson has zero qualifications. He has a
Pre-Medical undergraduate degree and a Master’s degree in Materials Engineering and Science. There is no such thing as a pre-medical degree. A pre-med is someone who has declared an intent to apply to medical school when they graduate; I have lots of students I advise who are pre-med, and all that means is that I recommend that they take courses outside the required courses for their degree within a discipline, so they’re told to take anatomy and physiology courses, a psychology course, a communications course, microbiology, etc., outside of the list of required courses to get a B.A. in biology (they can also be, for instance, an English major and a pre-med), and that I nag them in their junior year about taking the MCATs. You either have a medical degree, which requires going to a qualified medical school, or you don’t. He doesn’t. He has a degree in molecular biology from Montana State University, and either lost interest in or didn’t get accepted to medical school, and instead went to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for a Master’s degree in Material Engineering and Science. SDSMT is not a medical school, not even close.
Third strike: Christofferson is endorsed by Joseph Mercola. When the money-grubbing, dishonest arch-quack is your sponsor, you can trust that everything about it is tainted. Mercola did a fawning interview with Christofferson in which he asked,
Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a simple dietary tweak that could not only prevent but treat the vast majority of these cancers?
Yes, it would be interesting. It would also be interesting if every time I sneezed, hundred-dollar bills shot out of my ears. It does not mean that I’m snorting black pepper as a revenue source. That Mercola asks a stupid question does not imply that there exists a
simple dietary tweak to cure cancer.
Fourth strike (how many of these do you get before the umpire drags you off the field?): these quacks like to pretend that they have some bold new insight, but the fact is that legitimate cancer researchers have been exploring metabolic treatments for decades, and there are real studies in progress. They aren’t a magic bullet, but tackling metabolic processes in cancer cells might be helpful, and real doctors are testing it.
This brings me back to the question of whether cancer is a metabolic disease or a genetic disease, the answer to which I promised early on. The likely answer? It’s both! Indeed, a “chicken or the egg” argument continues about whether it is the metabolic abnormalities that cause the mutations observed in cancer cells or whether it is the mutations that produce the metabolic abnormalities. Most likely, it’s a little of both, the exact proportion of which depending upon the tumor cell, that combine in an unholy synergistic circle to drive cancer cells to be more and more abnormal and aggressive. Moreover, cancer is about far more than just the genomics or the metabolism of cancer cells. It’s also the immune system and the tumor microenvironment (the cells and connective tissue in which tumors arise and grow). As I’ve said time and time and time again, cancer is complicated, real complicated. The relative contributions of genetic mutations, metabolic derangements, immune cell dysfunction, and influences of the microenvironment are likely to vary depending upon the type of tumor and, as a consequence, require different treatments. In the end, as with many hyped cancer cures, the ketogenic diet might be helpful for some tumors and almost certainly won’t be helpful for others. Dr. Seyfried might be on to something, but he’s gone a bit off the deep end in apparently thinking that he’s found out something about cancer that no one else takes seriously—or has even thought of before.
Fifth strike: the foundation of a useful cancer therapy lies in empirical research. You test it. It’s hard work. You do not leap into publishing books for pop audiences that declare you have a path to the cure, as Christofferson has. If switching to a ketogenic diet could cure cancer, why do people still die of cancer? This is a disease that provokes desperation and fear, the perfect medium for quacks who want to profit by selling false hope.
I am unpersuaded.
I may have to write something up about the Warburg effect later. I am not a cancer researcher, but I am a cell biologist, and I know a fair bit about cellular metabolism — it annoys me to see basic cell biology, which Christofferson would have been exposed to as an undergraduate, being abused by quacks, especially when there are so many readily available papers in the scientific literature about the molecular biology and biochemistry of the Warburg effect.