Dr. James D. Watson: Antioxidant supplements could worsen late-stage cancer

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By David Liu, PHD

Wednesday Jan 9, 2013 (foodconsumer.org) -- Nobel Laureate James D. Watson suggested in a thesis published in Open Biology that antioxidants may actually do more harm than good in patients with certain advanced cancer, according to a statement by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where Dr. Watson conducted his published research.

The statement cites Dr. Watson as saying his published work on oxidants and antioxidants in cancers was "among my most important work since the double helix, (for which Dr. Watson received his Nobel Prize).”

The message suggests that patients with certain late-stage metastatic cancers may not benefit from taking antioxidants because evidence suggests that some hard-to-treat cancers actually have a way to produce antioxidants that neutralize reactive oxygen species or ROS, which is the killer employed by most if not all anti-cancer therapies to kill cancer cells (as well as healthy ones).

ROS, which can be naturally generated or induced by cancer treatments, and it can be both beneficial and harmful.  It can work both ways.  On one hand, ROS such as in the case in which it is induced by radiation can cause damage to proteins and DNA and RNA leading to carcinogenesis or cancer development, which is undesirable.  On the other hand, ROS generated by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can cause a process called apoptosis in cancer cells leading to the deaths of cancer cells, which is desirable.   Apoptosis is a programmed cell death found in normal cells, but not in cancer cells, which is why cancer cells keep growing to eventually form a tumor that is clinically detectable while normal cells are "born" and die constantly and there is a healthy balance between the two.

kiwi_ars_usda_238961277.jpgI personally did not read the research paper so I could not make a comment on the proposed theory.  However, two things readers may want to know.

1) Healthy people can use antioxidants to prevent ROS from damaging proteins/DNA/RNA, which would otherwise potentially cause cancer.  A recent Japanese study has demonstrated that rescue workers who took high doses of vitamin C before and after rushing to fight Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster did not significantly experience radiation damage as biomarkers showed. 

2) Antioxidants when used in high doses function as oxidants, which cause ROS.  This means that large doses of antioxidants like vitamin C and green tea as oxidants may help treat cancer.   Often times, doctors may tell their cancer patients not to use any antioxidants because they fear antioxidants can neutralize the drug induced cancer killing ROS (which damage the healthy cells as well).  However, a fact that is not widely known to the public or even many doctors is that a large dose of antioxidant can function as oxidants to actually generate ROS which should help eliminate injured cells which would otherwise increase cancer risk in healthy people and kill cancer cells in cancer patients.  Research has shown that cancer patients who took antioxidants feel better, which makes sense because ROS generated by cancer treatment can affect distant tissue and organs causing damage and clinical complications/symptoms, and exogenous antioxidants can obviously neutralize such a side effect.

Of course, it is hard to quantify how these antioxidants in different doses would affect the outcome of the cancer treatment in a particularly case in the laboratory because whatever obtained in the lab may not be applicable clinically.  That is why what Dr. Watson proposed is qualitative, but not quantitative in a sense as I can understand.  In reality, only clinical trials can tell whether antioxidants in certain doses may actually harm patients with a late-stage metastatic cancer.  But such a trial is unlikely if antioxidants are perceived as something harmful.

The good news is that late Dr. Linus Pauling, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and colleagues has tested vitamin C, a common antioxidant and found patients receiving chemotherapy, but also large doses of vitamin C actually lived longer.

Thus far, the role of antioxidants in cancer has largely remained unknown.  What concerned Dr. Watson seems to be a case of cancer cells driven by mutant proteins such as RAS and MYC.   Cancer cells of this type hardly respond to current treatment.  Dr. Watson suggests this treatment resistance 'could be due to their high levels of ROS destroying antioxidants."  He was cited  as saying "Unless we can find ways of reducing antioxidant levels, late-stage cancer 10 years from now will be as incurable as it is today."

Still what Dr. Watson is concerned in his paper seems only one type of cancer.   The oxidant/antioxidant theory may not be applied to other types of cancer.    And he did not say healthy people cannot take antioxidants like vitamin C in large doses to prevent cancer, which was advocated by Dr.  Linus Pauling and many other famous researchers.  

It is too bad for patients with late-stage cancer because this new paper may actually create more confusion than anything of a solution for the time being.  At this time, it is  hoped that doctors may not blame patients' taking antioxidants for the ineffective treatment.   Patients with late stage cancer may want to seek alternative treatment to treat themselves because conventional cancer treatments have proved ineffective in 95% or so of cases, according to some sources.

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