DCA: Cancer Breakthrough or Urban Legend?

First, I did a literature search on PubMed looking for articles with the terms dichloroacetic acid and cancer.

Although I didn't have access to all of the articles, one underlying theme stood out: DCA is an organic chemical that causes liver cancer in laboratory mice when put in their drinking water.

It is not nontoxic. It is a byproduct of another chemical called trichloroethylene (TCE), which has been a source of concern as a cancer-causing agent for some time.

Here is what the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has to say about TCE:

"HIGHLIGHTS: Trichloroethylene is a colorless liquid which is used as a solvent for cleaning metal parts. Drinking or breathing high levels of trichloroethylene may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and possibly death."

So before you start going out and adding DCA to your drinking water to prevent cancer, a degree of caution would be very prudent at this point.

Another item that came up in the Google search was a 1983 article from the New England Journal of Medicine.

Here is a quote from that article:

"Despite improvement in their lactic acidemia, all patients but one died of their underlying disease. No serious drug-related toxicity occurred. We conclude that dichloroacetate is a safe and effective adjunct in the treatment of patients with lactic acidosis, although the ultimate prognosis may depend on the underlying disease."

In other words, the treatment was a success, but the patient died.

New Developments Not Out of the Question

But experience is the best teacher in my opinion.

For example, even in the short time my blog has been in "production," I have written articles on other relatively nontoxic substances and their potential role in either preventing or reducing the burden of cancer.

New discoveries about vitamin C and vitamin D come to mind.

We haven't seen the hue and cry about getting these vitamins into cancer clinical trials, yet based on evidence similar to the DCA paper, there is equal reason to believe that either or both of these vitamins may have a role in cancer prevention and/or cancer treatment.

It is indeed a long, difficult road that must be traveled to demonstrate that an exciting new idea actually works in the treatment of cancer.

So, pardon me if I am a skeptic. As Jessica Rabbit said, "I am just drawn that way."

But I am also an optimist, as I have said many times in these pages. I do believe that there are exciting new developments in cancer treatment emerging from laboratories around the world. Maybe DCA is one of them.

It's just that I believe in patience, prudence and caution, because my experience has taught me that those are the best guidelines to follow in assessing reports such as the one in Cancer Cell.

It is way too soon to know whether this is a cancer treatment breakthrough or an urban legend or something in between.

I am acutely aware that there are cancer patients out there who are fighting every day for their survival, hoping that there is one last chance to get a treatment that may prolong or save their lives.

For some of you out there to inappropriately make them feel that DCA is the answer to their prayers based on this single early-stage report in a medical research journal is, in my opinion, not acceptable at best -- and despicable at worst.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. You can view the full blog by clicking here.

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