by Charles Gant M.D., Ph.D.
For many years, cancer has been understood to be a genetic disease and we have approached the treatment of cancer from that perspective. The now famous case of Angelina Jolie who underwent bilateral mastectomies because of having BRCA genes is a case in point. Some physicians routinely order genomic cancer panels (e.g., 34 genes) on those patients who have a family history of various cancers to determine if they have inherited genetic risk factors. Often, once it is known if the patient carries the genes (single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs), interventions can be crafted to mitigate the risks.
For breast cancer, various interventions can be prescribed to shift the metabolism toward safer estrogen byproducts such as eating more cruciferous vegetables and away from proven, cancer-risky, estrogen byproducts such as consuming less alcohol. The average number of drinks per day increases the risk of breast cancer linearly, so a decrease in alcohol intake or sobriety remains a major intervention to minimize risk for breast cancer, especially in those with genetic vulnerabilities like the BRCA genes or those with positive family histories.
Lately, a new model of cancer prevention and treatment has emerged which challenges the prevailing genetic theory. Cancer may be far more of a metabolic disorder than a genetic disease. A great deal of research has emerged and is being conducted to substantiate or challenge this new metabolic model. This model is founded on the simple fact that the more undifferentiated normal cells become, that is, the more that normal cells in the body gradually shift into becoming cancer cells, the more dependent they become on sugar.
All cells must produce energy to survive, and our normal, differentiated cells can take one molecule of glucose and turn it into over 30 molecules of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), the fuel that runs life. In addition, our normal cells can turn fat and protein into energy, within the power plants living in our cells, called mitochondria. The more that cancer cells become cancer cells, the less able they are to make ATP in this way because their mitochondria become damaged and defective, and the more dependent they become on deriving their ATP in a way that does not depend on their mitochondria.
Cancer cells still have to make ATP somehow, as their energy requirements are just as important as normal cells, so they become totally dependent on sugar to accomplish this. In fact, unlike normal cells, cancer cells could be 10 to 100 times more dependent on sugar to survive. This metabolic fact is driving research and new treatment methods that seek to lower blood sugar levels in cancer patients, in order to essentially starve cancer cells.
Medication, like Glucophage, which is normally prescribed for diabetics has been showing some promise in treating cancer. Insulin Potentiation Therapy (IPT), which can temporarily lower blood sugar levels and thus make cancer cells much more vulnerable, is often accompanied with low-dose chemotherapy or is used to improve the anti-tumor effects of radiotherapies. A Paleolithic diet, which limits intake of carbohydrates has shown promise as well.
Some clinicians and researchers believe that enough data and experience has accumulated which suggests validity of the metabolic model that all cancer patients should be made aware of this new approach—that cancer is a mitochondrial, metabolic disorder. Others suggest that more research needs to be done, especially to determine which kinds of cancers are more susceptible to such blood-sugar-lowering interventions.
At the very least, consumers should be informed about the metabolic side of this issue, as it could adjunctively enhance the genetic approach, and greatly augment the effects of conventional cancer treatment, such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, as well as enhance the less-well-proven, alternative medicine approaches to cancer.