You could set your watch by biologist Ren'e Dubos. He reckoned it would take the medical orthodoxy 20 years to warm to the ideas of American chemist Linus Pauling and especially his claim that high-dose vitamin C could reverse cancer.
Twenty years on from Pauling's death in 1994, scientists have this year demonstrated that high-dose vitamin C (ascorbic acid) does indeed kill cancer cells-even those in the final third and fourth stages-and are calling for the therapy to be adopted alongside chemotherapy.
Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center have tested high doses of vitamin C in ovarian cancer patients and on cancer cells in the laboratory. For the patients, the vitamin made their chemotherapy treatment more tolerable and reduced its toxic effects while, in animal and laboratory tests, it singled out cancer cells and killed them, leaving the healthy surrounding cells alone.1
In the human study, the researchers worked with 27 patients who had recently been diagnosed with stage III or IV ovarian cancer. All were being given chemotherapy-paclitaxel and carboplatin in combination-and some were also given high-dose vitamin C intravenously (by injection). The patients were monitored for five years, and those who were also given the vitamin experienced fewer toxic effects from the chemotherapy.
When high-dose vitamin C was given intravenously to mice with a mouse model of ovarian cancer, it killed only the cancer cells without causing any damage to the liver, kidneys or spleen. But it was effective only when given intravenously; oral doses, even at a similar level, had no positive effects.
And this was the vital breakthrough that supported Pauling's theory. This one difference, says lead researcher Dr Qi Chen, is what has divided the believers from the sceptics for years. Previous studies that kept drawing a blank had been using oral vitamin C supplements, which weren't powerful enough to have any cancer-fighting effect.
The new study, says Dr Chen, demonstrates the cellular mechanisms that explain the vitamin's effectiveness and hopefully provides the scientific evidence to convince oncologists to at least begin entertaining the use of high-dose vitamin C in their range of options, if only as a complement to conventional chemotherapy.
The Kansas researchers want to see others take up their work and test intravenous high-dose vitamin C in bigger trials. But that may never happen because no one will pay for it. As Dr Chen says, "Because vitamin C has no patent potential, its development will not be supported by pharmaceutical companies. We believe that the time has arrived for research agencies to vigorously support thoughtful and meticulous clinical trials with intravenous vitamin C."
The terrain isn't promising. In 2011, America's drugs regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), caused a stir when it pronounced that it wished to restrict the sale of vitamin C as it was being used as a drug-presumably by alternative cancer therapists-and it needed to pass through all the usual drug-approval procedures. It was a dubious claim and one that was quickly kicked into touch, but it is equally hard to see who will step forward to pay for the trials as nobody actually 'owns' vitamin C.
It's not a much rosier picture across Europe where the European Union is still trying to restrict the sale of high-dose vitamins.
It's been a bumpy road to get to even this point. During his lifetime, Pauling himself was ridiculed and dismissed as a quack for postulating that high-dose vitamin C could not only reverse cancer, but also heart disease and infections-including, perhaps most famously, the common cold. The doses had to be very high, however. The standard recommended daily dose for vitamin C is just 75 mg, but Pauling was advocating doses of 10,000 mg, an amount he claimed could improve a cancer patient's survival rate by three to four times.2
Other high-dose advocates have said even this dosage is relatively low and recommend levels twice or even three times as high as those used by Pauling. American biologist Frederick Klenner was giving up to 20,000 mg doses to children with polio over a 24-hour period, as he had observed it prevented paralysis.
The therapy never gained traction in conventional medicine after two trials, involving around 120 cancer patients, found no differences in survival rates between those given 10,000 mg of vitamin C and those given a placebo.3
But as the University of Kansas researchers have pointed out, those doses were given orally, not intravenously.
Pauling suffered from other examples of bad science. The prestigious US National Institutes of Health (NIH) claimed Pauling had been wrong about the need for high doses, that relatively low doses could saturate the body and, indeed, any dosages above 1,000 mg were potentially dangerous.4
But when Manchester University researchers Steve Hickey and Hilary Roberts reexamined the data, they discovered that the NIH researchers had made many errors, including waiting until the vitamin had been excreted before carrying out their measurements. This was a fundamental mistake: they assumed that high doses weren't making much difference to the levels of vitamin in the blood as they erroneously thought levels had reached saturation and didn't consider that the vitamin had already gone from the body.
The ABC of C
Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gy"orgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937 for discovering vitamin C. There were a few strange things about the vitamin, however, which its discoverer pointed out at the time.
For one, humans are like guinea pigs, higher monkeys and some bats in that we don't produce our own vitamin C, which suggests we need far more than the recommended daily intake (RDI) of 75 mg to function healthily. Working on the ratio of vitamin C that a rat requires, an adult human should be consuming between 2 to 4 g a day when healthy, and up to 15 g a day when ill.
For another, it isn't really a vitamin at all. Szent-Gy"orgyi postulated that the vitamin is an essential molecule for maintaining cellular communication in the body. So, the larger the amounts of vitamin C we have in our body, the better the electron flow is between our cells. Illness is an expression of an impaired flow, he argued, which arises when 'free radicals'-molecules lacking an electron-are allowed to proliferate. Vitamin C is a natural free-radical 'scavenger' that produces high-energy electrons to counteract the errant molecules.
The story of Edie
Edith Hubbard was given three months to live when she was given high-dose intravenous vitamin C for her breast cancer.WDDTY publisher Bryan Hubbard tells the remarkable story of his mother.
My mother, Edith, was a wonderful, kind woman who always seemed to have time to help others. She was brought up in a different era, of course, and her upbringing was far from easy. She learned to bottle things up and keep her feelings to herself.
Trouble was, she had quietly nursed breast cancer for 18 months, bandaging her wounds without telling anyone, not even my father.
One day the pain became so great that finally the family came to learn that something was badly wrong. The following day she went to see the doctor, who was so overcome by what he saw that he almost fainted. He told the family there was no hope and that mother had just three months to live. At least we had time to put affairs in order, he said.
Lynne and I couldn't accept this prognosis and asked the doctor if we could take over her care. He agreed. Immediately we took Edith to see Dr Patrick Kingsley, who thought the position was far from hopeless. Although she was around 78 years old at the time, Dr Kingsley believed he could help. She was, after all, an unusual case as she hadn't been 'contaminated' with chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Dr Kingsley, who has since retired, radically changed her diet, including eliminating dairy, added sugar, red meats, refined carbohydrates, yeast and wheat. But the main part of her therapy was high-dose vitamin C, given intravenously. He administered around 20 g twice a week for the first few months and then reduced it to just once a week.
Within a few months, the breast-at one stage an open wound-started to heal and, within six months, Dr Kingsley was confident the tumour
The GP who had given the gloomy prognosis was shocked to see Edie walking down the street one day; he genuinely thought he was looking at a ghost! Still unconvinced, he did various tests on the breast and confirmed that the tumour had indeed disappeared.
Sci Transl Med, 2014; 6: 222ra18
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 1976; 73: 3685-9
N Engl J Med, 1979; 301: 687-90
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 1996; 93: 3704-9