What are we to make of Dr. Watson’s article in ‘Open Biology’, re: antioxidants may have caused more cancers than those cured?

Free radicalsWhen Dr. Jim Watson speaks, people listen. But they don’t always hear the right things. Many press accounts reported that Watson had said that antioxidants cause cancer. He didn’t say that. He questioned the use of antioxidant supplements by people undergoing cancer treatment. Watson’s words carry a lot of weight because it was he, along with Francis Crick who in 1953 produced one of the most important research papers in the history of science. Published in Nature with the simple title of “A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic acid,” it laid the groundwork for our understanding of how the chemistry that occurs inside a cell governs life. In a classic understatement, the authors remarked that “it has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Indeed Crick and Watson had explained how genetic information is passed along as cells divide, and in the process made DNA a household name. Watson went on to have a stellar career playing a major role in establishing the Human Genome Project and then went on to become director of the prestigious Cold springHarbor laboratory in New York. Since 1994 his major interest has been cancer and it was his musings about its treatment that now have once again splashed his name across newspapers and webpages.

In a recently published paper in “Open Biology,” Watson deplores the lack of progress in the treatment of many cancers and implores researchers to take a different direction. The focus, Watson suggests, should be on why cancer cells do not undergo apoptosis, or programmed cell death, the the same way that various old, unnecessary, and unhealthy cells cells do. The human body replaces perhaps one million cells per second. When apoptosis does not work correctly, cells that should be eliminated may persist and become immortal, a characteristic of cancer. When apoptosis works overly well, it kills too many cells and inflicts grave tissue damage. This is the case in strokes and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases.

Watson argues that programmed cell death involves the formation of free radicals and cancer cells produce antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Indeed, the reason that chemotherapy and radiation work against cancer cells is because they produce free radicals that prompt apoptosis. That’s why taking antioxidants when undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, says Watson, may actually make the situation worse. Antioxidants may well be the the proverbial double edged sword, preventing damage to DNA in healthy cells but preventing cell death in cancer cells. According to Watson, patients undergoing chemo or radioation therapy, should stay way from ingesting antioxidant supplements. He does not suggest that antioxidants cause cancer, although like many other scientists, he is underwhelmed by the supposed evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent the disease.

Evidence is accumulating that the benefits of antioxidants have been overstated. The widely held assumption has been that the reason people who consume a diet high in fruits and vegetables are healthier is because of the increased intake of antioxidants. This argument is supported by laboratory studies in which antioxidants prevent damage to DNA in cell cultures. But conceivably, the benefits of fruits and vegetables are due to compounds other than antioxidants, or perhaps the key is not what these populations are eating but what they are not eating, namely lots of meat.

It should be remembered, though, that Watson’s article is really just an opinon piece, not backed by hard evidence. Furthermore, in no way does he suggest that eating foods with a significant antioxidant content, like blueberries, is a problem. It is at antioxidant supplements during cancer therapy that he points an accusing finger, and suggests that research should focus on anti-antioxidants for cancer treatment. Curiously, some substances that have antioxidant properties at low concentrations have anti-antioxidant, or prooxidant properties at higher concentrations. Vitamin C and uric acid are examples. When present at high concentrations, they engage in a reaction with iron in the blood to generate free radicals. There is certainly no reason to stop eating blueberries or broccoli, but when it comes to cancer treatment we may be hearing more talk of anti-antioxidants.

22 Responses to “What are we to make of Dr. Watson’s article in ‘Open Biology’, re: antioxidants may have caused more cancers than those cured?”

  1. healanyone says:

    Wonderful post I’d say.

    It’s really important for college students to maintain health and diet too.

    Thanks

  2. Aleksandar says:

    I’ve red that article by Dr Watsons. I find it really interesting. I must agree to this review aswell ;)

  3. Aleksandar says:

    thank you, great information!

  4. Fredy says:

    Guys that was a good read, Thanks very much for who written this great post!!

    Cheers!

  5. ONP Hospital says:

    It has been interesting to read everyone’s perspectives not only the author of the blog. Although there seems to be differing opinions, the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is not only limited to potential cancer prevention, but it may also decrease some risks associated with obesity including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure.

  6. Katie says:

    I’ve red that article by Dr Watsons. I find it really interesting. I must agree to this review aswell ;)

  7. Togel says:

    Evidence is accumulating that the benefits of antioxidants have been overstated. The widely held assumption has been that the reason people who consume a diet high in fruits and vegetables are healthier is because of the increased intake of antioxidants.

  8. psh says:

    Nice review. However I remain perplexed that there remains real dispute about the origin of cancer. Not much has changed since 2007 when from within NIH itself, Drs Baker and Kramer penned, “Paradoxical results are not uncommon in studies of carcinogenesis. Ignoring these paradoxes is tantamount to saying the prevailing theory holds in all instances except the paradoxical cases. However ignoring “outliers” in data analysis is not satisfying; it should be the last refuge when all else fails. But more importantly, ignoring paradoxical results means missing potentially exciting new avenues for research. Rather than relegate the paradoxical results to the periphery of investigations, they should be the centerpiece of a paradox-driven research portfolio.”

    It shouldn’t have taken a Nobel prize winner to raise the awareness of existing research from other scientists that if the intended approach is to drive the ROS levels to a sufficiently high level to preferentially kill the cancer cells (but hopefully not high enough to also kill normal cells), then restricting antioxidants during that period could both improve the efficiency of some present treatments and (this seems to be a logical extension) also provide opportunities to decrease the dosages and # of courses needed of the harsh/toxic chemo and radiological efforts.

    Is there any reason for optimism today that we will witness a more collegial approach between real cancer research and the cancer business?

  9. We also need to remember that cancer therapies work on a variety of different principles. The older traditional chemotherapies, like 5FU, doxarubicin etc. work by disrupting various aspects of DNA replication, so with these agents, mopping up ROS is probably not a good idea. However, the newer targeted therapies work in very different ways (e.g. inhibition of vascularisation, epithelial growth factors etc), so are not reliant on DNA damage in and of themselves – although they may be used in combination with tradiational chemotherapeutic agents.

    Also, a number of food, herb and spice extracts are being examined because they show anti-cancer effects in-vitro and in some cases, in xenograft models. However, we need to be cautious here, because something that works in a petri dish or a mouse doesn’t necessarily work in a human patient. So I think the case is rather more complex than some of the media are making out.

  10. Desain Rumah says:

    Evidence is accumulating that the benefits of antioxidants have been overstated. The widely held assumption has been that the reason people who consume a diet high in fruits and vegetables are healthier is because of the increased intake of antioxidants. This argument is supported by laboratory studies in which antioxidants prevent damage to DNA in cell cultures. But conceivably, the benefits of fruits and vegetables are due to compounds other than antioxidants, or perhaps the key is not what these populations are eating but what they are not eating, namely lots of meat.

  11. Kulwant says:

    Thanks for the valuable information Will catch up in future

  12. Of course, anything at a high enough dose is harmful (even water). And free radicals have important functions. Yet, research studies by Kedar N. Prasad, PhD have shown that whether supplements have a positive or negative effect on existing cancers depends on the manner these health product

  13. It could be informative to recognise that the effectiveness of Fruits and Vegetables in preventing cancer is not solely due to Anti-Oxidants. The Role of Salvestrols is under-reported (as is usual with natural remedies for cancer) see
    http://www.salvestrolen.nl/images/pagepictures/PDF/Salvestrol_3rd_case_studies_Schaefer_JOMSept2012.pdf

  14. This has been a topic of controversy. There are people defending either sides. But definitely Dr. Watson had a lot of valid points.

  15. Medzee says:

    This has been a topic of controversy. There are people defending either sides. But definitely Dr. Watson had a lot of valid points.

  16. asim says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further write ups thank you once again.

  17. Thurman says:

    There’s certainly a lot to find out about this issue. I like all the points you made.

  18. Tam says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further write ups thank you once again.

  19. Samual says:

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again
    soon!

  20. Ailsa says:

    We also need to remember that cancer therapies work on a variety of different principles. The older traditional chemotherapies, like 5FU, doxarubicin etc. work by disrupting various aspects of DNA replication, so with these agents, mopping up ROS is probably not a good idea. However, the newer targeted therapies work in very different ways (e.g. inhibition of vascularisation, epithelial growth factors etc), so are not reliant on DNA damage in and of themselves – although they may be used in combination with tradiational chemotherapeutic agents.

    Also, a number of food, herb and spice extracts are being examined because they show anti-cancer effects in-vitro and in some cases, in xenograft models. However, we need to be cautious here, because something that works in a petri dish or a mouse doesn’t necessarily work in a human patient. So I think the case is rather more complex than some of the media are making out.

  21. Skolpas says:

    Of course, anything at a high enough dose is harmful (even water). And free radicals have important functions. Yet, research studies by Kedar N. Prasad, PhD have shown that whether supplements have a positive or negative effect on existing cancers depends on the manner these health products are being used (at http://www.supplements-and-health.com/side-effects-of-dietary-supplements.html are some of Prasad’s findings elaborated on). If supplements are used improperly, i.e., a few single-agent products are used, or if the doses are low, or the supplements are not taken consistently and only shortterm, etc.) they can increase the progression of cancer. However, if supplements are taken properly they inhibit cancer progression while protecting healthy cells (from the toxic orthodox cancer treatments). Seems like Dr. Watson isn’t aware of, or ignores, these crucial differences (interestingly, Prasad’s research isn’t mentioned in his paper) when making these anti-supplement claims. Watson, unsurprisingly, subscribes to the erroneous mechanistic reductionism model of disease held by organized medicine.

  22. Flemming G Rasmussen says:

    Nice review. However I remain perplexed that there remains real dispute about the origin of cancer. Not much has changed since 2007 when from within NIH itself, Drs Baker and Kramer penned, “Paradoxical results are not uncommon in studies of carcinogenesis. Ignoring these paradoxes is tantamount to saying the prevailing theory holds in all instances except the paradoxical cases. However ignoring “outliers” in data analysis is not satisfying; it should be the last refuge when all else fails. But more importantly, ignoring paradoxical results means missing potentially exciting new avenues for research. Rather than relegate the paradoxical results to the periphery of investigations, they should be the centerpiece of a paradox-driven research portfolio.”

    It shouldn’t have taken a Nobel prize winner to raise the awareness of existing research from other scientists that if the intended approach is to drive the ROS levels to a sufficiently high level to preferentially kill the cancer cells (but hopefully not high enough to also kill normal cells), then restricting antioxidants during that period could both improve the efficiency of some present treatments and (this seems to be a logical extension) also provide opportunities to decrease the dosages and # of courses needed of the harsh/toxic chemo and radiological efforts.

    Is there any reason for optimism today that we will witness a more collegial approach between real cancer research and the cancer business?

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