Could pumping roughly 2,000 oranges’ worth of vitamin C into a patient’s bloodstream boost the effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs and mitigate the grueling side effects of chemotherapy?
In research published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, scientists found high doses of vitamin C — administered intravenously — increased the cancer-killing effects of chemotherapy drugs in mice, and blunted toxic side effects in humans.
But even though the research seems to offer the promise of effectiveness for a new method of cancer treatment, vitamin C, or ascorbate, is unlikely to inspire the vigorous, and expensive, research necessary to become an approved tumor remedy, experts said.
Because of a decadeslong history of discredited health claims, as well as the inability of pharmaceutical companies to patent an essential nutrient, vitamin C is among the unlikeliest compounds to attract funding for cancer research.
“There’s been a bias since the late 1970s that vitamin C cancer treatment is worthless and a waste of time,” said Dr. Jeanne Drisko, a study co-author and the director of integrative medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “We’re overcoming that old bias.”
The furor surrounding vitamin C began with chemist Linus Pauling, a two-time winner of the Nobel Prize, who proposed heavy doses of ascorbate could prevent and treat most cancers. Although Pauling’s broad claims could not be supported in clinical trials, large doses of vitamin C are still used as an alternative form of cancer treatment for thousands of patients, outside mainstream medicine.
Drisko and colleagues argue vitamin C is worth re-examination, and said the federal government should fund further research. One of the problems with earlier studies, they said, is ascorbate was taken orally, not intravenously.
Researchers examined the effects of vitamin C on a variety of cancer cells in the lab, and in ovarian cancer cells in mice. When high concentrations of ascorbate entered the space between cells, they said, it formed hydrogen peroxide.
Senior author Qi Chen, an assistant professor of pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics at the University of Kansas, said the hydrogen peroxide went to work on cancerous cells in several ways: It damaged their DNA, it stressed their metabolism and inhibited their growth.