James D Watson on anti-oxidants and cancer

I’ve been impressed by James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, ever since I read his  account of the discovery of the structure of DNA,  The Double Helix  and used his Molecular Biology of the Gene to study biology as an undergraduate  (first published 1965; 7th edition, 2014). I like the quality of his writing and the clarity and simplicity  of his thought.

Dr Watson, now 86, gave an interesting and provocative lecture at UCLA in January, 2013 on  “Oxidants, anti-oxidants and the curing of cancer”


and published an article on the same subject  “Oxidants, antioxidants and the current incurability of metastatic cancers”  http://rsob.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/120144.

In his lecture and his article, he makes 3 assertions that are worth considering.

First, anti-inflammatory agents such as aspirin (low dose, eg 81 mg, used daily) “lead to much less cancer in those human beings who regularly take them”, probably because aspirin inhibits the “pushing by cytokines of otherwise quiescent mesenchymal cancer cells to grow and divide.” (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(11)61720-0/fulltext )

Second, metformin is a relatively non-toxic, well-tested drug that preferentially kills mesenchymal stem cells. “This most widely used anti-diabetic drug’s heightened ability to kill late-stage mesenchymal cancer cells probably explains why those humans who use it regularly have reduced incidences of many cancers”. (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/3/972, and other papers by Kevin Struhl of Harvard, who discovered this “in a still much unappreciated article published three years ago in Cancer Research” in 2009).

Thirdly, free-radical-destroying antioxidative nutritional supplements may cause more cancers than they prevent. Humans kill cancer cells largely by  oxidizing them. Late stage cancer cells are hard to kill, in part, because they can make too many anti-oxidants. There have been numerous trials using anti-oxidants to prevent cancer which not only have failed to demonstrate benefit, but have led to an increased risk of cancer in those taking them. (http://www.ctu.dk/media/8831/Bjelakovic-Nikolova-and-Gluud-JAMA-2013.pdf ) “In light of the recent data strongly hinting that much of late-stage cancer’s untreatability may arise from its possession of too many antioxidants, the time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”

So, bottom line:

  1. Daily aspirin, low dose, 81 mg
  2. metformin works synergistically with cancer chemotherapy to kill the most dangerous cells
  3. anti-oxidants in food, not as pills
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