Antioxidants cause cancer. Or at least that is the headline you may read in some less reputable sources of science news, reporting this study out this week in Nature. Before you go rushing off to toss out your Teavana supercharged antioxidant green tea and your expensive GNC herbal supplements, let's take a closer look at what the research shows. (Well, to be frank, you can go throw out those supplements, and only keep your tea if you enjoy drinking it.)
Here's the scoop: most of your cells are of a social nature, and generally need to remain in close contact with other cells. When they lose that contact they execute a self-destruct sequence, and it is this suicide program which provides a major defense against the development of cancer.
Unfortunately, an occasional mutant cell crops up that manages to evade the suicide program, and you then have the makings of a cancer cell. A research group at Harvard was interested in understanding what goes wrong when a normal cell is detached from its social environment, in the hope of gaining insight into how a cancer cell manages to successfully gain its independence. The researchers found that antioxidant treatment enhanced the ability of cells to live independently of their social environment, most likely because these free-range cells, in their effort to survive, produce more free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS), electron-rich chemicals that, like contact mines bobbing around in a harbor, damage whatever they bump into. Antioxidants have the capacity to defuse free radicals, somewhat like James Bond:
This study was not done to look at the effects of antioxidant treatments on cancer - this was a study of molecular mechanisms, using cells in a petri dish. No conclusions should be drawn about nutrition and cancer inside of an actual human being.
We should, however, keep in mind that antioxidants aren't miracle drugs - their biological effects are complex and still not well understood, so be wary of people selling you something who claim that you need to load up on more.
So what does this all have to do with Linus Pauling? Pauling was one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century, but he went nuts over vitamin C and the supposed effects of its antioxidant properties.
Here's Nobel Prize-winning scientist Pauling urging vitamin C on Nobel Prize-winning scientist Feynman - note how Feynman smoothly manages the polite brush-off:
Pauling to Feynman, June 28 1978 (p. 321-322 in Deviations from the Beaten Path:
I have learned from Linda that you have had a malignant tumor removed.
These abdominal malignancies are serious. The 5-year survival fraction is rather small. Chemotherapy has little value - in Britain it is rarely used for these cancers.
I think that the best thing to do is to begin immediately a high intake of vitamin C - 20 g. per day or more. I am corresponding with a man who had extensive abdominal cancer, and who took 60 g. per day for 3 months. He is now much better, and is down to 35g per day...
It is very important not to stop the intake of vitamin C, once you have started it.
We have another paper in press in PNAS. Also, Morishita and Murata in Japan have got similar results.
P.S. Also no sugar, little meat, lots of fresh vegetables, vegetable juice & fruit juice.
Feynman to Pauling, July 7, 1978
It was very good to hear from you. Thank you for your special interest in my problems.
It turns out that my cancer is a very unusual kind of abdominal cancer called mixoid liposarcoma - a soft tissue cancer and although it weighed over 2800 grams it still seemed to be nicely encapsulated. It was apparently neatly removed in its totality and the pathological laboratory can't even find any apparent invasion of blood vessels by the cancer cells. So my oncologist (Dr. Thomas C. Hall, a man introduced to me by Benzer) suggests even no chemotherapy at all but of course a very careful periodic thorough search with x-ray for metastases. At any rate, I have given him your letter to be sure he is thoroughly familiar with the results given in your references.
Linda already offered the information, etc., that you mentioned in a very kind and lovely note. One of your great accomplishments, Linus, has been to help produce such a lovely daughter.
Thanks again for your interest,
Richard P. Feynman
Feynman lived another 10 years, without vitamin C, before succumbing to cancer.
Hat tip to the Rugbyologist, who came up with the title, the video, and did just about everything else for this post except write it.
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