New theory signals end of the war on cancer. Makes way for non-drug treatments

By Jerome Burne

A diagnosis of cancer is really scary. It can seem as if there are only two options, neither very appealing: conventional treatment which promises a lot but is likely to be toxic and gruelling or the complementary route, seen to lack the punch needed to beat cancer. It’s also likely to be dismissed by your authoritative consultant as lacking evidence and only promoted by the peddlers of false hope.

Now there’s a radical new approach to cancer, however, which regards toxic drugs as largely unnecessary and welcomes many non-drug treatments as having a valuable role to play. A few years ago only a few maverick researchers knew about it, lately it’s been getting heavyweight academic attention.

A conference devoted to the metabolic theory of cancer is being held in London tomorrow (Saturday 19th November) by the integrative cancer charity Yes to Life. It is titled: ‘Charging down the wrong path’. Is cancer a metabolic, epigenetic disease? The quote in the title comes from one of the speakers Professor Paul Davies, Principle Investigator at the Centre for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology at Arizona State University.

His ‘wrong path’ is the reason why we need a new view of cancer. The mistake has been to think that we can ‘beat cancer’ by focusing on cancer-causing genes. ‘Never has science offered a clearer example of a preoccupation with trees at the expense of the forest,’ he wrote in his book ‘This Idea Must Die’.

The forest in this case is the whole cancer cell and the micro-environment around it.

What are the conditions that favour cancer and which don’t?

Davies is actually an astrophysicist who was asked by the American National Cancer Institute some years ago to look at cancer from the perspective of a physicist, rather than a biologist. ‘They wanted to know if there was something they were missing,’ he says. ‘They were spending five billion-a- year on research yet improvement in treatments was painfully slow.’

I wrote a post on Davies’ work last year which gives background details on his theory on the origins of cancer and the new approach it suggests.

Davies identified the almost exclusive concentration on cancer genes as the ‘wrong path’ and went on to ask such basic questions as why is cancer found all through nature, what are the conditions that favour cancer and what are the ones that make it harder for cancer to thrive?  One of the answers involves metabolism – the way cells in a body make energy– because cancer cells make energy in a different, less efficient and more ancient way, than healthy cells do.

‘Healthy cells use oxygen and sugar or glucose which they get from the blood, says Davies. ‘Cancer cells need far less oxygen and a lot more glucose for their energy production.’ And right there you have one way to discourage cancer growth. ‘Expose tumours to hyperbaric oxygen and starve them of sugar by eating a low carbohydrate or even ketogenic diet,’ says Davies.

Looking at the whole cell and its local environment is what many of those non-drug practitioners have been doing for years; the ketogenic diet (getting the body to run on fat-derived energy packets rather than glucose) is widely used and so are diets that keep the system slightly alkaline. Davies identifies an acidic micro-environment as cancer-friendly.

By my age you are riddled with cancer

The metabolic theory doesn’t ignore genes but rather than trying to knock ‘rogue’ ones out, it aims to change their expression – turning them on or off.

‘Cancer is part of us,’ says Davies. ‘By the time you get to my age you are likely to be riddled with cancer cells but a healthy body keeps them in check. They start growing dangerously when the micro-environment becomes more cancer-friendly.’

Shifting this local environment in a more cancer-hostile direction can bring them back under control by changing gene expression.  ‘What totally astonished me,’ says Davies ‘was the discovery that among the many things that can affect gene expression are the electrical and physical forces that physicists work with – temperature, electrical polarisation (interferes with the division of fast growing cells), stress and pressure.  I leave the question of how to apply them clinically to the next generation.’

So the metabolic theory doesn’t just encourage a non- drug approach, it makes it an obvious part of any effective treatment. This raises the question of just how effective are the pharmaceuticals that now dominate cancer treatment?  Are the NCI concerns about effectiveness, which first got Davies involved, still justified?

An article in The BMJ earlier this month gives a ringing yes.  Last year the world-wide spend on chemotherapy drugs was £85 billion yet it is clear we are getting a very small bang for this vast outlay of bucks. ‘Chemotherapy drugs have had little effect on survival in adults with metastatic cancer,’ writes Peter Wise, former consultant physician and senior lecturer.

Benefits from chemotherapy – an extra two months

In 200 4 a large study found that: ‘For 90% of patients – including those with the commonest tumours of the lung, prostate colon and breast – drug therapy increased five years survival by less than 2.5%  - an overall survival benefit of around three months.’ 

You might think that the new improved drugs coming on the market would do much better. Not at all. ‘The 48 new drug ‘regimens’ approved by the American FDA between 2002 and 2014,’ writes Wise, ‘had a median overall survival benefit of 2.1 months.’

The piece also makes a detailed critique of the way trials are done. These include using markers for effectiveness, such as shrinking a tumour, which have little connection with the final outcome, and involving patients who are younger and healthier than those who are most likely to be getting the drugs.

Many of the drugs are then released onto the market as fast as possible on the grounds that they are ‘game-changing’ or ‘revolutionary’ which rarely turns out to be the case. Wise concludes: ‘Market driven rather than health driven priorities and practices do not benefit cancer patients.’

Professor Davies also referred to his frustration with market driven practices.  ‘The cancer industrial complex demands clinical trial evidence for the metabolic approach but has no interest in funding it because there is no profit in more oxygen and fewer carbohydrates.’

These all seem points worth considering when deciding how much to rely on drugs to treat your cancer.

DNA not the way says genetics pioneer

One of the best accounts of the metabolic theory and its history comes from a book called Tripping Over the Truth: the metabolic theory of cancer by American science writer Travis Christofferson , who is also speaking at the conference. It was published in 2014 and I wrote an enthusiastic review here.

The book traces the metabolic theory back to the ideas of the German Nobel Prize winner Otto Warburg, who first reported that cancer cells made energy in a different way nearly 70 years ago. The finding was then sidelined by the rise of genetics but kept alive by one dogged American researcher. The latest edition of the book has an epilogue that takes the story on and describes some new developments. 

For instance, the legendary DNA researchers James Watson, one of the architects of the genetic theory of cancer, recently told the New York Times Magazine that if he were going into cancer research today, he would study biochemistry (cells) rather than molecular biology (genetics).

Among those now accepting the importance of epigenetic changes in triggering and driving cancer is Stanford Medical cancer researcher Parag Mallick, PhD. In August of this year he was quoted as saying that like most other researchers he had been convinced that cancer was the result of genetic mutations in individual cells caused by a carcinogen, such as asbestos or cigarette smoke. 

War on cancer needs be replaced with diplomacy

‘But it has turned out that most of the things that cause cancer, including tobacco smoke and asbestos, don’t cause mutations,’ he says. Rather than modifying the genes themselves, smoke and asbestos alter the activity of genes through a collection of processes called epigenetics.’

What this means is that the war on cancer is being replaced by a process of diplomacy. ‘The idea of epigenetic therapy is not to kill the cell,’ says Dr. Jean Pierre Issa of M.D. Anderson. ‘Rather, we are trying to do diplomacy, to change the instructions that have begun running cancer cells. Cancer cells start out as normal cells each of which has the same set of instructions.

‘When a cell becomes cancerous, specific genes that regulate its behavior are turned off by epigenetic changes, which mean the instructions are forgotten. So the aim of epigenetic therapy is to remind the cell that, “Hey, you’re a human cell, you shouldn’t be behaving this way.” And we try to do that by turning the expression of those silenced genes back on and letting them do the work for us.’

And changes in what the drugs are designed to do mean you can use them differently. Promoting epigenetic effects doesn’t need the high toxic doses used in chemotherapy. And the lower doses will make it easier to give drug combinations which are more effective.

Cocktails of drugs with low toxicity

‘Every researcher I’ve spoken with over the last few years believes meaningful results will only come from combinations of treatment’ writes Christofferson. One of these is neuro-oncologist Henry Friedman of Duke University ‘We should be using combination therapies from the get go. Single agent therapies are not likely to be effective in a disease with so many molecular perturbations.”

This is something that is already being tried at the Care Oncology Clinic in London which I’ve written about here.  Oncologists at the clinic are using a combination of four, old, off-patent (and so cheap) drugs, never licenced for cancer but known to have anti-cancer effects.  Called ‘repurposed’ drugs they are the topic of one of speakers who will be talking about how such drugs made her cancer-free. It so happens that all of the ones being used by the Care Oncology Clinic have an effect on pathways involved in cancer’s energy production system.

Although these new approaches to cancer are exciting, innovative and popular with patients, integrating them into the regulatory system governing cancer treatment it is going to be a challenge, as Christofferson explains.

‘For oncologists, the standard-of-care protocol for the most common cancers is a suit-of-armor. It cuts the chance of being sued for malpractice. But once the cancer has spread patients rarely have long to live and standard-of-care is pretty poor. So what should oncologists do?

‘Give a drug that’s old, very safe and dirt cheap, such as the malaria drug chloroquine, shown to increase survival in brain cancer? But without a clinical trial the FDA won’t approve it so the oncologists could be sued if something goes wrong. But without pharmaceutical funding such trials are almost impossible, leaving oncologists with no incentive to do what could benefit their patients.’

It’s a mark of how much traction the metabolic theory has achieved already that such conundrums are even being considered. Could it eventually create pressure for a medical system driven by health priorities rather than being market driven?

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne is the editor of HealthInsightUK. He is an award-winning journalist who has been specialising in medicine and health for the last 10 years and now works mainly for the Daily Mail. His most recent book “The Hybrid Diet” was written with nutritionist Patrick Holford, published 2018. Award: 2015: Finalist for 'Blogger of the Year' Medical Journalists' Association.


  • I’m very grateful that I discovered this information, which has led me to ask serious questions about current treatment for cancer. The utter failure of the current paradigm might finally be questioned.

  • why wait to be diagnosed with cancer?
    what is far more interesting is a metabolic approach to cancer risk reduction. that is LCHF (or one the alternatives), moderate exercise (oxygen), and lifestyle (less stress).

  • “‘Cancer is part of us,’ says Davies. ‘By the time you get to my age you are likely to be riddled with cancer cells but a healthy body keeps them in check.”

    I am curious as to whether this is just a theory, or is there any actual evidence of this idea.

    “So the aim of epigenetic therapy is to remind the cell that, “Hey, you’re a human cell, you shouldn’t be behaving this way.”

    I understood that by the time most cancers were recognised, the genome was quite scrambled with missing or duplicated chromosomes etc. Won’t this make this idea less likely to work?

    Those quibbles aside, I think the amazing thing about the metabolic theory, is that we were always told that the problem with cancer is that its cells were so like normal cells that it was really hard to kill one without killing the other. Now it would seem that one glaring difference – the need to generate energy by glycolysis – was just ignored!

    • Editorial

      The idea that if you go looking for cancer in anyone over middle age you are likely to find some doing very little is very standard no reference to hand. On other point cancer genes are likely to have a variety of mutations but very solid cell studies showing can reverse cancer in a cell by implanting its genome into healthy cell and vice versa. Looks like it is more the epigenetics than the genetics driving tumour growth

  • Prevention
    The environment exposes the population to many (cancer -inducing substances,asbestos ,x -rays excessive sunlight ,radioactive impurities in the air .Many countries are investigating the problems of disease -causing factors in the environment.
    I the United States,the Environmental Protective Agency is studying this problem with the view to educating the public ad establishing protective measures .Some foods have been banned by the Food and drug Administration because animal tests showed them to be potentially carcinogenic

    Many cases of cancer can be prevented by using common sense.Avoid excessive sunbathing to get tan may cause cancer of the skin.Neglect of irritation of the mouth caused by sharp tooth edges or ill-fitting denture is another hazard.The repeated irritation caused by scratching moves,sore warts can lead to cancer.Early detectionis the key note of cancer prevention ;These includes sore that fail to heal lump in the breast.abnormal bleeding ,a bloody cough.

    Few of us live up to the potential of our ow uniquess .In fact ,for many of the people you will be reading about ,it took their illness to put them on the path to self -realisation .Sickiess pulls conciousness to ever deeper recess of the self.Recent research indicates that a reasonable amount of roughage in the diet ,particularly of those who are middle age ,has some value in preventing cancer from developing.One’s attituede to oneself is the single most important factor in healing ,or staying well.We choose to go when no longer want to be here ,when quality of our life is such that it seems no longer worth living.Loss of the will to live is enough.Love yourself take the time to think it is the source of power, take time to read is the fondation of widom take time to play it is the secret of staying young take time to dream is what the future is made of.

  • I would suggest that anyone interested in this article might find the following two books of interest: ‘The Modern Nutritional Diseases’ by Fred and Alice Ottoboni and also Linus Pauling’s book ‘How to live longer and feel better’. Both of these books refer to the value of vitamin C to both prevent and fight cancer. A particularly interesting reference in the Ottoboni book describes how vitamin C can kill cancer cells without harming normal cells (p. 226). I am sure that there is also a reference in the book to the value of a ketogenic diet to starve cancer cells (evidently cancer is a glucose junky). This book certainly highlights the distorted and false (purported) evidence used to justify and push the high carb, low fat diet (and the heart healthy diet). Both Ottoboni’s were public health scientists whose working careers were spent in public health.
    Pauling (the winner of two Nobel prizes) is equally enthusiastic about the benefits of large doses of vitamin C. He points out, likely with more than a grain of truth, that big ‘pharma’ is not interested in the possible benefits of vitamin C as it cannot be patented! It may sound like a conspiracy theory, however both books are well worth reading for their relevance to the above topic.

  • Thank you for sharing.Can you elaborate about vitamin C how much is enough because too much vitamin C can also give you internal haemorrhage?.Most people want the symptom of their problem treated or a special diet given.I do not believe that physical problems are caused by overwork,tension,stress.Some of us with deep-seated physical problems want to blame everything on someone or some imaginary cause.Cancer has been consistently on the increase …Is it possible the cause of cancer is our departure from natural food?

    • Linus Pauling, in the book I mentioned was a strong advocate of vitamin C, his description of this substance was that it was ‘orthomolecular’ (ie not a drug but a substance normally found in the body), he also describes this as having extremely low toxicity. I cannot comment on vitamin C causing internal hemorrhage as I have not heard or read of this. He took significantly more than the RDA according to his book, I won’t mention the amount (it is given) as I don’t want to suggest that this is what I am advocating, it has to be a personal decision.
      The other book I mentioned (Ottoboni) discusses dosage and is well worth reading (it was an eye-opener! albeit it can get technical). For example, Ottoboni mentions that guinea pigs (like humans) cannot synthesize vitamin C and their requirement is 5 milligrams per 100 grams, approximately equivalent to 3.5 grams for an adult human.
      There is much information on the internet, and Pauling’s recommendations were certainly controversial, this has to be a personal decision based upon reading, research and, in the final analysis, what an individual feels happy with!
      Pauling’s book is available for literally buttons on various web sites and is well worth reading [and evaluating!].
      Regarding your last point (is it possible the cause of cancer is our departure from natural food …), there are certainly many who believe this (search on the Weston Price Foundation on the internet).
      Can I also recommend, which provide useful information on a low ketogenic diet for health and weight control.
      Finally, avoid sugar! The absolute requirement for sugar is zero, a point made on the above web site, but also of interest (but it will put you off sugar) is Dr John Yudkin’s book ‘Pure, White and Deadly’). Finally, the web address has two VERY interesting documents available for free download: ‘Sugar: Consumption at a crossroads (PDF)’ and ‘Fat: The New Health Paradigm (PDF)’. Both are well worth reading!!!
      Sorry to go on for so long, hope this helps!

  • Thank you for sharing;Knowledge is power nobody can take away.
    We all have to remind ourselves about sugar is the principal cause of the most common disease in the industrialised countries.
    Boost your immune system to help prevent minor ailments from developing in the cold winter months ,take vitamin c 3.5 is better than medicine.if I am not sure keep asking questions my local pharmacist anything is better than antibiotic.Fruit and green vegetables natural vitamin c .The only way I control my weight is by not eating too much and regular exercise there is no magic formula.

  • Hi Jerome

    Just seen this on Science Daily – which indicates that fat increases spread of cancer. I cannot understand how – would be interested in your take on this.


    • Editorial

      Bit too technical for me and very early stages. I would have thought it was widly premature to start looking for cancer-causing fats in the diet although there does seem a link with visceral fat in the body. Animal studies also have to be taken with care; many things cure cancer in mice that don’t transfer to humans. And the efffect of fats on mice has been horribly distorted by attempts to prove that high fat causes diabetes. Researchers commonly use a strain that has been bred to do just that which is then used to show that cutting fat can reduce diabetes It is a dirty little secret that I’ve written about here
      So my unsatisfactory response is wait and see

    • That Science Daily article is a bit misleading. The headline introduces the topic with a kind of bias.

      The paragraph given over to discussion of fats isn’t really needed. It distracts from the fats by pandering to the general prejudice surrounding fats.

      Additionally the article s not so clear about cause and effect as it could be.

      The best way to make sense of the article is to recognise that two effects, not one, are under discussion. The primary effect is that of metastasis (that the cancer begins spreading). The secondary effect is the leveraging of metastasis (if you like, the extent and fortitude by which it spreads).

      In the Science Daily account of the original research it indicates that the researchers identified a protein whose presence seems to account for metastasis. This protein named as CD36 is depicted as the ’cause’ that gives rise to metastasis, the ‘effect’ in question. It is the discussion around fats that places a veil over clarity.

      If the cause and effect in question is the relationship of CD36 as the factor that gives rise to metastasis (the primary effect arising) then fats are depicted as a co-factor to this process.

      If our attention turns to the secondary effect which identified as the leveraging or potentating of metastasis then in this fats, the availability of fats (which can be increased by diet), can cause a rise in the amount of metastasis or in the rate of metastasis.

      From a market driven perspective people engaged in working to develop patentable treatments might harbour ambitions to find the means to break the link between CD36 (as cause) and fats (as co-factor). Readers of Health Insight UK might be more interested in wondering what could suddenly give rise to the arrival of that protein, CD36.

      Cancers are acknowledged for passing through a number stages. They are a trend over time. Formerly healthy cells commute to the initial stages of an early cancer, establish the makings of an early tumour, become much less like the healthy cells they once were, and later down the line they metastasise. Cancers are formerly healthy cells becoming degenerates.

      It is easy to imagine that cancer must be in the genes, and in one sense it probably is, but genes are only half the story. In any persons genome resides an additional code that keeps a whole load of specific genes turned off, and those that are not turned off by this code are left turned on. This switching layer is referred to as the epigenome and the job of the epigenome is to control which genes are ‘on’ and which genes are ‘off’. Genes are switch-able from ‘off’ to ‘on’ and from ‘on’ to ‘off’. The mere attachment or removal of a methyl group to a specific dictates the genes status.

      In a sense, the epigenome might be equated to the ‘mapping’ of the engine management units that now control how a modern car engines runs. In this comparison the ‘mapping’ of your epigenome exercises control over how your cells express themselves together with how they cope with changing conditions, perhaps. In another sense for cells to remain healthy and retain a healthy sense of purpose requires that the mapping of the epigenome is in a healthy state as nature would intend, ie., the ‘mapping’ has to be right. If the healthy ‘map’ of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches that applies to genes should become corrupted then genes you’d rather remained switched off could get turned on, and vice versa.

      CD36, in all likelihood, probably arrives on the scene because the gene(s) needed to make it became turned on as part of the progressive epigenetic degeneration that can account for the trend from formerly healthy cells to cancerous cells that have trended to the phase of metastasis. The big question is why does the epigenome become thus corrupted?, closely followed by, can a person do things differently in order to maintain it?

      Robert Lipp,

      I would not rush to read too much into this research. It’s early days. Plus, the precise mechanism of how fats can be a co-factor in the process of metastasis ought not be left in doubt. It does need a clear and rigorous explanation. It does not help that the original article is behind a pay-wall.

      Eugine Fine, Richard Feinmann, and others, are attempting to breath new life into the notion of the Warburg effect. The Warburg effect is the understanding that cancer cells have a different means of metabolism that do healthy cells. Otto Warburg proposed cancer cells could be disadvantaged with reference to this Warburg effect. In short cancer patients can go all out HFLC and starve those cells that have turned cancerous.

      Nobody is yet openly suggesting the following is the case, not even me, though I do dare to wonder. But if a person has a tumour whose cells have turned to producing CD36 then going HFLC in a half-assed way could advantage metastasis, whilst going HFLC and doing so with full commitment may, conceivably, starve the cancer cells in the primary tumour and also starve any cells that move on through the process of metastasis.

      To hark back to your earlier comment:
      why wait to be diagnosed with cancer?
      what is far more interesting is a metabolic approach to cancer risk reduction. that is LCHF (or one the alternatives), moderate exercise (oxygen), and lifestyle (less stress).

      These factors can have bearing upon the epigenome. That’s to say they may play into the mapping and remapping of genes switches in quite a dynamic way. Epigentics is a young science that is just beginning to rival its own significance in how nature and genes work. The key is do not stress your cells, do not stress the epigenome, and do not stress cells membranes, I think.

      Just as Jerome says it is early days and we ought not rush to conclusions from just one paper writing up one detail that is no more than a detail in a far bigger picture involving lots of details.

      For anyone that is interested in getting a plausible overview of certain circumstances (and there seem to be several) that may degrade the ‘mapping’ of epigenome I recommend the reading of these titles. Minds will need to be attentive, open, and wonder about unwritten spaces that rest between the content of each. That should lend some scope to the ‘bigger picture’.

      Your Inner Fish; Niall Shubin.
      The Body Electric; Robert O Becker.
      Healing is Voltage; Jerry L Tennant.
      Earthing: The most amazing Health Discovery Ever?; Ober, Sinatra, & Zucker.

      • Christopher Palmer

        Many many thanks for your considered and detailed response. Most appreciated.

        Thanks again

        • Robert, thanks, tho’ now I see a few too many typos made it through despite I thought I was exercising care. Just shows how a persons other commitments can impair their ability to express themselves with clarity.

  • thanks will wait and watch

  • Cancer -the second highest cause of death among adults in the Western nations, now killing children than any other illness and the most dreaded of all degenerative diseases is another condition for which virtually nothing has been done to cure. In the new Ecologist, December 1978 In this article the National Cancer institute and the fifty years cover up Peter Barry Chowka the following statement of Dr. William Howard Hay, published in the cancer journal, 1927:

    Think back over the years of cancer research, of the millions, spent the time consumed, the pains expended…and where are still today ?Isn’t it time to take stock of our basic concept to see if there isn’t something radically wrong to account for the years of utter and complete failure to date ?..Cancer has been consistently on the increase Despite all our amazing technology we don’t have cures for many conditions that afflict us, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, while Medicine can help us!Money can’t buy health we see the recent death, George Michael he was 53 he had the best physicians, the best medicine, they could not cure his lung infection, and his body was relatively young he died prematurely.If health care is just about fixing us up, It’s doomed to failure.The hope of humanity lies in the prevention of degenerative and mental disease, not in the care of their symptoms

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