Travis Christofferson, an unimpressive snake-oil salesman

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.


  1. Siobhan says

    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.

    Does he want to stand next to a fuel rod for twenty minutes to test his theory?

  2. blf says

    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.

    The mildly deranged penguin points out that snorting Tabasco sauce — the original stuff, not that horrible Jalapeño junk† — is much more effective, causing 500€ notes to shoot out.

      † There are, apparently, according to Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge, other varieties now. The Habanero seems promising, but it’s not entirely clear what comes out of your ears when you snort-and-sneeze — maybe the 1,000 Swiss franc note, or your brain?

  3. naturalcynic says

    If you want to become an instant zillionaire, try a Carolina Reaper suppository.

  4. dhabecker says

    The single absolute cure for cancer is the same one that ‘cures’ quacks. The cure includes the words pistol and self-inflicted wound. I would only recommend it for the quacks, as it helps the cancer sufferers get qualified advice and treatment.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    The first link above, to “Single Cause, Single Cure”, doesn’t work.

    Not that I want to go there anyway…

  6. michaelvieths says

    My uncle teaches auto body repair classes, and is convinced that cancer is caused by salt corroding the body like it does cars. He says God told him so.

    Fortunately, he doesn’t post these things on the Internet for kooks to pick up on. We just have to hear about it at family reunions.

  7. says

    SDSMT is not a medical school, not even close.

    There were some nursing courses there when I attended 10+ years ago. But those would not have been something someone pursuing a masters in materials engineering would have taken.

  8. says

    I have occasional run-ins with a commenter on another site who loves to go on and on (and on and on and on) about “dangerous neuroleptic drugs” and “Eugenics-Based Medicine”, calls psychiatrists “charlatan practitioners”, and has recently claimed, I shit you not, that “self-care [i.e. diet and exercise] is not treatment” and that Type II Diabetes can be “cured” without any treatment.

    This person has never provided a single source for any of her claims. Oh, they’ve “recommended” books with a clear anti-psych and anti-med agenda. They’ve made claims of having a “vast bibliography”, but always has some excuse as to why they “can’t” show us any of these sources.

    Well, we finally got them to post a link to a source for one of their claims. Specifically, the claim re: T2 Diabetes, that it can be “cured without treatment”.

    The “source”?


  9. titolasvegas says

    I am not a cancer research:: I’m just a coffee shop

    (From pulp fiction, Robert Ruth)

  10. blf says

    I am not a cancer research: I’m just a coffee shop

    Reminds me of Paul Erdős:

    His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”, and Erdős drank copious quantities […]

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Hmm…cancer cells have a slightly lower pH level than other cells, so if we could design “smart” molecules that release powerful cytotoxic molecules when encountering the right pH level, we could get something resembling “one cure” to cancer.
    But I am not holding my breath.

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    #14, Funny how they always sell to the desperate rather than publish ICH clinical studies in the appropriate journals with appropriate statistics taking into account all untoward outcomes….