DCA Claims Don’t Tell Whole Story

CURE, Fall 2013, Volume 12, Issue 3

Is it true that dichloroacetate treats cancer but that drug manufacturers won’t make it because it wouldn’t be profitable.

A: Social media has become an important force in cancer care over the past several years. Thanks to the Internet, information can spread instantaneously with profound effects on many aspects of our lives. Sometimes, however, when that information is unfiltered, it can have consequences that are less than helpful, at least when viewed through the lens of people with cancer.

Such was the case in 2007 when a research report and media stories claimed that a commonly available chemical, dichloroacetate (DCA), dramatically affected cancer cells and shrank tumors in laboratory experiments. More enticing, DCA had been used to treat an unrelated medical condition and was readily available—but because it could not be patented, no drug company would be interested in exploring its use.

The original research was reported by a highly regarded investigator from Canada, and was based on the concept that cancer cells rely on a different energy process than normal cells. Websites about DCA treatment proliferated and anecdotal reports of its effectiveness continue to appear. But clinical trials have been limited, and to date there is no generally accepted proof that DCA is an effective treatment for cancer. There are only two clinical trials currently listed in the cancer.gov database, and concerns have been raised about its toxic side effects.

The lesson: While DCA sounds promising, there is a lot more information that might not be reported. The media likes excitement. Caution doesn’t make for great news.

When you receive a message that suggests a great breakthrough has occurred, be careful about accepting it at face value. Before you leap into the next great discovery, take the time to learn as much as you can about whether a suggested treatment has been carefully evaluated. Unlike many social media messages suggest, there is always more to the story.

—Len Lichtenfeld, MD, is deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. Send questions to editor@curetoday.com.