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Nobel laureate urges new direction for cancer research — and warns against antioxidant supplements

James D. Watson
CC/Wikimedia Commons/National Institutes of Health
“Even though we will soon have comprehensive views of how most cancers arise and function at the genetic and biochemical level,” Watson writes, “their ‘curing’ seems now to many seasoned scientists an even more daunting objective than when the 'War on Cancer’ was started by President Nixon in December 1971.”

I’ve just gotten around to reading molecular biologist and Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s scathing criticism of current cancer research, which was published last week in the journal Open Biology.

The paper appeared (apparently coincidentally) the day after the country’s top cancer organizations acknowledged in an annual report that we’re making agonizingly slow progress in reducing the disease’s death rate.

Watson, who won his Nobel Prize for co-discovering the structure of DNA, is both impatient and frustrated with science’s failure to find successful cancer treatments.

“Even though we will soon have comprehensive views of how most cancers arise and function at the genetic and biochemical level,” he writes, “their ‘curing’ seems now to many seasoned scientists an even more daunting objective than when the 'War on Cancer’ was started by President Nixon in December 1971.”

In his paper, which Watson calls “among my most important work since the double helix,” he sets forth a hypothesis that links the presence of antioxidants in the body with late-stage (metastatic) cancer. As he points out, some successful cancer treatments use “free radical” molecules to treat cancer — the very same molecules that antioxidants attack and kill.

“Unless we can find ways of reducing antioxidant levels, late-stage cancer 10 years from now will be as incurable as it is today,” he warns in a statement that was released with the paper. “Although mortality from many cancers has been steadily falling, particularly those of the blood, the more important statistic may be that so many epithelial cancers (carcinomas) and effectively all mesenchymal cancers (sarcomas) remain largely incurable.”

A potential danger

In line with his hypothesis, Watson also asserts that anti-oxidative nutritional supplements “may have caused more cancers than they have prevented”:

For as long as I have been focused on the understanding and curing of cancer (I taught a course on Cancer at Harvard in the autumn of 1959), well-intentioned individuals have been consuming antioxidative nutritional supplements as cancer preventatives if not actual therapies. The past, most prominent scientific proponent of their value was the great Caltech chemist, Linus Pauling, who near the end of his illustrious career wrote a book with Ewan Cameron in 1979, Cancer and Vitamin C, about vitamin C’s great potential as an anti-cancer agent. At the time of his death from prostate cancer in 1994, at the age of 93, Linus was taking 12 g of vitamin C every day. 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.

All in all, the by now vast number of nutritional intervention trials using the antioxidants ß-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium have shown no obvious effectiveness in preventing gastrointestinal cancer nor in lengthening mortality. In fact, they seem to slightly shorten the lives of those who take them. Future data may, in fact, show that antioxidant use, particularly that of vitamin E, leads to a small number of cancers that would not have come into existence but for antioxidant supplementation. Blueberries best be eaten because they taste good, not because their consumption will lead to less cancer.

Mixed reviews

As Reuters and other media outlets have reported, cancer experts are giving Watson’s paper mixed reviews. "There are a lot of interesting ideas in it, some of them sustainable by existing evidence, others that simply conflict with well-documented findings," one cancer biologist told Reuters. "As is often the case, he's stirring the pot, most likely in a very productive way."

Watson, who is 84, doesn’t want to just stir the pot, however. He’s tired of waiting for a cure for cancer.

“The main factor holding us back from overcoming most of metastatic cancer over the next decade may soon no longer be lack of knowledge but our world’s increasing failure to intelligently direct its ‘monetary might’ towards more human-society-benefiting directions,” he writes.

You can read Watson’s provocative paper in full on the Open Biology website.

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