Second year, Angela Hu, explores the weird and wonderful treatments used for cancer, ranging from HIV to breast milk
As we all know, cancer is a deadly disease that has probably been around for a millennia, and only recently have we begun to somewhat understand its aetiology and progression. For over 1300 years, it was believed that cancer was caused by an excess of black bile – one of the four ancient humours – in the body, an idea perpetuated by the famous doctor Galen. It was actually a famous Scottish surgeon, John Hunter, who in the 1700s suggested surgery as a possible treatment for removing cancerous tumours. The early treatments were often quite extreme, such as radical mastectomy or even the use of mustard gas in patients with advanced lymphomas. Since then, a lot of progression has been made in the fields of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and most treatments nowadays are less frightening (thankfully!).
However, recently more and more unorthodox treatments for cancer have been appearing. “Treating cancer with HIV” was one shocking headline in the news not too long ago. Gasp! Is this for real? How can you treat cancer with a deadly virus? This would be a situation where the term “fighting fire with fire” fits perfectly. However, it turns out that this headline is a little deceiving. A team of doctors led by Dr. Carl H. June actually genetically modified HIV so that it cannot cause AIDS, and then injected it into the T cells of patients with leukaemia. The idea was that the virus, which normally targets white blood cells, would instead be altered to fight diseases because it still retains the ability to reprogram the immune system. These “serial killer cells” have been shown to be able to kill more than 1000 cancerous cells. Over the past three years, Dr. June and his team have treated twelve patients (all of whom were terminally ill) and nine are in full or partial remission. The team is now looking into developing treatments for even more cancer varieties.
As another example, so-called “megavitamins” have been used for quite a while now as a treatment for cancer. These are not to be confused with multivitamins; megavitamins far exceed the daily recommended dose. A quick Google search leads us to the site “doctoryourself.com”, where a lengthy article by Dr. Abram Hoffer is written. He explains his own use of megavitamins on patients, giving many examples including a patient’s 16 year old daughter who had Ewing’s tumour (a very malignant sarcoma), and he concluded that she required vitamins B3(niacin) and C. He states that after his treatment, she no longer had to have her arm amputated and she led a normal life. Conversely, there have been many reports, including one in the New England Journal of Medicine, where it has been shown that taking vitamins in high doses can actually be very harmful. The study conducted showed that the subjects (all smokers) who had been given daily beta carotene were five to eight times more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease. And in fact, the American Psychiatric Association has discredited Dr. Hoffer’s methodology in his experiments (concerning his use of niacin for schizophrenia, not cancer though) and said that they were unable to reproduce his results.
And what about that weird story about the woman who breastfeeds her dad?! In July 2007, just a week before she was about to get married, Georgia Browne found out that her dad Tim was diagnosed with colon cancer. She later watched a documentary (after she had given birth) in which an American man believed his prostate cancer had been helped because he had drunk breast milk. So she (in consultation with her dad, obviously!) decided to start giving her breast milk to her dad. While this may definitely sound quirky and a little disturbing to some, it does have some scientific basis. PubMed published an article that showed that HAMLET (human alpha-lactalbumin), a molecular complex derived from human milk, kills tumour cells by a process resembling programmed cell death. Another drug derived from human breast milk has also been developed, destroying cancer cells in studies and is to be tested in a preclinical trial. And as for Tim? A month after starting his unusual diet, a scan of his cancer showed a slight, but distinct, improvement. Although doctors are not sure whether the breast milk has helped, Georgia says that he is brighter and has more energy.
So what conclusions can be reached from all these “treatments”? Well, the only conclusion that can really be reached is that these results are all inconclusive. Only time will be able to tell whether these new cures are truly effective. In the meantime, it is important to keep the principles of evidence-based medicine in mind, relying on well-conducted, low bias publications. With cancer, it is all too easy to be falsely misled by miracle cures, so take everything with a grain of salt!
1 American Cancer Society, The History of Cancer, http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancerbasics/thehistoryofcancer/ (2013).
3 A. Gilman, The Initial Clinical Trial of Nitrogen Mustard, PubMed, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13947966 (May 1963).
4 David Artavia, Is It Possible to Cure Cancer With HIV Cells?, http://www.hivplusmag.com/case-studies/research-breakthroughs/2013/06/25/it-possible-cure-cancer-hiv-cells (June 25, 2013). !
5 Abram Hoffer, Megavitamin Treatment of Cancer, DoctorYourself, http://www.doctoryourself.com/ cancer_hoffer.html, 1999. !
6 Paul A. Offit, Don’t Take Your Vitamins, NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/dont-take-your-vitamins.html , June 8 2013. !
7 Stephen Barrett, Orthomolecular Therapy, http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ortho.html, July 12 2000. !
8 I breastfeed my dad, Yahoo Lifestyle, http://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/new-idea/article/-/5987537/i-breastfeedmy-dad/, April 20 2009 !
9 Hallgren et al., Apoptosis and tumor cell death in response to HAMLET (human alpha-lactalbumin madelethal to tumor cells), Adv Exp Med Biol, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18183931 2008 . !
10 Hannah Osborne, Breast Milk Drug that ‘Destroys Cancer’ Enters Pre-Clinical Phase, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/514032/20131015/breast-milk-cancer-cure-pre-clinical-trial.htm, October 15 2013.